It was midday at Tonshon South Prisoner of War Camp in the inhospitable jungles of Thailand. Suddenly, the stillness of the hot, humid jungle was shattered by the agonizing scream of someone being clubbed to death.
Early that morning the so-called fit men and the sick men had dragged their aching bodies down the narrow jungle track to the infamous “Railway of Death.” Left behind in that cheerless clearing in the hostile jungle known as the hospital compound, were the physical wrecks of humanity. Not only were they broken in body, but they were crushed in spirit; to be consigned to the hospital was almost like having the death sentence pronounced. Hundreds of young men who felt they had been cheated of normal manhood tossed in agony upon the vermin-infested rice sacks, grasping at straws in the fruitless effort of trying to hang on to the last threads of life.
Filthy and emaciated bodies moved uneasily within the tattered tents of that lonely hospital compound. Joyless eyes peered out through the doors into the brilliant sunshine and stark naked courtyard. Confused and terrifying thoughts forced their way through the stagnant brain cells of the victims of inhuman war and disease. Each man was wondering in a painfully slow mental process: who is the victim this time?
The subject of this clubbing was a middle-aged Chinese man. He lay motionless in a pool of his own blood. The Japanese guards stood nearby still holding the bamboo pole which one of them had crashed through the unfortunate creature’s skull.
The guards seemed almost at the point of insanity. For many years the Chinese had been the mortal enemies of the Japanese. How was it then that a Chinese dog had been sheltered under their very noses and had eaten Japanese rice? It was the unpardonable sin to give Japanese rice to a Chinese. Now that the Chinese had paid with his life for his fictitious crimes, the British collaborators must be found and likewise punished.
The first victim stood nearby. He was one of the heroic Medical Officers of the Royal Army Medical Corps. This British Captain was well liked -- he had given himself unsparingly in the course of his duties as a doctor to the futile effort of combating disease and death. Pursuing his humanitarian course, he had been exercising the Chinese when he was spotted by the Japanese guards. He had watched man’s inhumanity to man exhibited in this senseless killing. “Now what?” he thought as he faced his barbaric assailants. He had not long to wait; they lunged at him and commenced to beat him in merciless fashion until he crumpled at their feet. The Captain never fully recovered from this. Some two months later his tragic death was attributed to the brutal beating he had received.
It had all begun a few weeks previously. I was assigned the questionable honor of being the medical orderly for the gaunt skeletons who formed one of the many “work parties” which laboriously pushed their way through the mosquito-infested jungle, building what was later to be known as the “Railway of Death.”
The scene this morning was the building of a bridge over a swollen river. Some men clothed only in meager loincloths stood up to the waist in this swirling icy water. These men were pulling hopelessly on a rope in a vain attempt to hoist the large trunk of a tree to the Japanese engineers high up on the bridge. Suddenly, with out warning, the noose slipped and for a moment the tree hung precariously in mid-air, then it crashed into the murky waters. Unfortunately one of the prisoners was unable to get out of the path of the falling tree and it fell on his lower leg, completely crushing it.
A situation like this called for quick action. The man was grabbed from the torrent, and carried to the riverbank. It was a pathetic sight: here was a young man suffering excruciating pain from a mutilated lower leg which hung limply from the knee; I felt so inadequate in myself, but commended the situation to the Lord. No splints, no bandages, no morphine to alleviate the pain. Hurriedly, bamboo poles were cut and used as improvised splints; we immobilized the leg binding leg and splints together with the stalks of creeping vines. A stretcher was made by inserting bamboo poles lengthwise through two old rice sacks. Gently, we lifted the man and placed him on the crude stretcher; by this time he was more dead than alive. Under the protests of our unsympathetic guards, four of us lifted the stretcher and slowly made our way along the narrow jungle track to our primitive hospital.
The Medical Officer, realizing the seriousness of the injury, at once gave instructions to take the unfortunate young man to a better-equipped hospital where his leg could be amputated. We lifted the semiconscious frame and commenced our slow journey down the narrow, winding, jungle trail.
Long columns of dejected men had dragged themselves along this trail of death. Naked, sick and half crazed by thirst and hunger they had toiled and sweated under the blazing sun, driven relentlessly on by the well-fed and well-equipped guards. Broken in spirit and utterly exhausted, many brave men gave up the unequal struggle, preferring the long sleep of death to the tortures of a hopeless existence.
On either side of this bloodstained trail of horror lay the bleached bones of many a brave man, bones that had been picked clean by the flesh-eating vultures. As we carefully chose our steps through the labyrinth of mud holes and roots we became conscious of someone groaning in the bush. Laying our patient down, we proceeded cautiously into the jungle and found a Chinese national suffering from multifarious injuries and lying in a state of indescribable filth. Though language was a barrier, by signs we determined that this destitute man wanted just a little rice and a drink of water. Rice and water -- the bare necessities of life. We had neither and when the Chinese realized this the look of expectancy quickly faded into one of utter dejection. How helpless we felt; we made him as comfortable as we could, and with sad hearts we left the man alone on his jungle couch with the snake and scorpions and carnivorous vultures as his constant companions.
After delivering our patient to the medical authorities, our minds turned back to the injured Chinese. In the hope of contacting him again, we were able to secure from a kind-hearted cook a small portion of burnt rice and a bottle of water. As we approached the place where he lay we heard his shouts and, finding him, gave him the rice and water. No language was needed to convey the overwhelming gratitude that welled up in the man’s heart. His eyes and face spoke eloquently for him. This touching scene reminded me of the Scriptural promise: “Whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in My name…shall not lose his reward” (Mark 9:41).
Having done everything for the man that we possibly could, we made our way to our camp with sorrowful hearts. Though we left the poor man in the jungle, the vision of this dying derelict became an obsession. When this obsession could no longer be contained I approached the Japanese guards through the interpreter to have the man brought into the vicinity of our camp. To this request the guards simply shrugged their shoulders, which to men of the Western World meant, “Suit yourself, we don’t care.” So we immediately planned to make the move.
The next morning with a few interested friends we carried this human reject into the outskirts of the cholera camp. We felt that should the Japanese change their minds, he was relatively safe there, as no guard ever entered the confines of this horror compound. After recuperating for some time, the Chinese made some progress and seemed headed for recovery. But then a very serious problem arose. The cholera camp, which had been phased out, was closed down completely. The question uppermost in our minds was, “What will we do with our good friend?” It was unthinkable to abandon him in this crisis.
Under cover of darkness we carefully carried our newfound friend to a little bower we had prepared for him close to the main camp. This straw hut was completely hidden in the thick underbrush, which gave adequate cover for our frequent visits to care for his many needs. Though food was terribly scarce some of us were able to share our meager rations with this Chinese castoff. This is the sequence of events, which triggered off one to the many atrocities committed during these forty-seven months of terror.
The Japanese were convinced that others, apart from the British Captain who had already been punished, were involved, and in their usual efficient manner went about to find out who they were. During this commotion I was enjoying a well-earned sleep. The past night had been a trying one. Fourteen long, weary hours on duty, on a hot humid night surrounded by the sick and dying can drain the body of mental and physical energy. Exhausted and frustrated, I had left my fever-ridden comrades struggling for dear life on cold mother earth.
The sound of angry voices increasing in tempo drew steadily nearer. My heart was chilled, cold sweat broke out all over me as the guards shouted and raged, demanding the identity of the villain -- the Good Samaritan.
In a moment I grasped the situation. The incredible incidents of the past few weeks flashed before me. The joy of having been able to help this poor victim now seemed lost in the surge of horror and fear that gripped my heart. The moment of truth had come. I cast myself on the mercy of the Lord Who had never failed. Then calling on all the reserve of spiritual and physical strength that I could muster, I strode from the bamboo hut and confronted the astonished Japanese.
Quickly the infuriated guards jumped lion-like on their helpless victim, a mere ninety-seven pound shadow of the proud Scottish soldier who was called to the colors a few years previously. I stood there in their midst -- I never felt so alone and helpless in my life as at that moment. I stood naked but for my ragged loin cloth. Bearded, with hair falling to my shoulders, the flesh had almost disappeared from my tall six-foot frame. Hollow eyes and cheeks, collapsed abdomen, pitifully thin legs and arms, I stood feeling utterly helpless. Only the previous Sunday I had addressed seven to eight hundred men on the subject of the Good Samaritan, exhorting them to help their less fortunate comrades who had fallen by the way. Suddenly the character of the Good Samaritan linked itself with my present position. Instantly I received strength, and the mysterious consciousness of the Divine Presence of my blessed Savior permeated my whole being. Humanly speaking, I was at the point of no return. None of my comrades dared to help me in the face of this ruthless and bloodthirsty enemy. But instantaneously and gloriously my fears completely left me.
The faith that I had found as a lad of twelve suddenly became a living reality. That which had been theory suddenly became experience -- it was new and invigorating. Then I understood experimentally why the saints and martyrs could sing praises to God while being thrown to the lions, and as the flames of fire roasted their flesh while they burned at the stake. I recalled the hymnwriter's description of this kind of faith as he contemplated the Cross of Jesus Christ:
It makes the coward spirit brave;
It nerves the feeble arm for fight;
It takes its terror from the grave
And guilds the bed of death with light.
To the four Japanese guards I must have seemed easy prey as I stood there utterly helpless. They huddled together for a conference. Breaking away, they jumped around me briefly, screaming with rage. Then they struck; swift and sure came the cruel blows each one a killer. With feet and fist they pummeled my weak frame until I crumpled at their feet beaten into insensibility. Throwing a bucket of cold water over me brought me back to consciousness, where I was hauled to my feet by determined Nipponese assailants. Through misty eyes I could see them stealthily advancing upon me again. Suddenly the blows began to fall on my weakened frame. I tried to resist them but they came from all directions; unmercifully and relentlessly they fell, then semiconsciousness faded into total darkness and relief.
Being brought back to consciousness for the second time, I felt that I was living my last few moments on earth. Strange as it may seem I was not loathe to let go the strings of life. The works of Paul were my constant inspiration, “To die is gain.” Lifting my heart to the Lord I prayed, “Dear Father I am ready to go or stay at Your command.” The presence of my precious Savior was so real, His love in which He had enclosed me was impregnable and impervious to the threats of my barbaric assailants. They at one time seemed so large and fomidable, but as I looked at them through the eyes of the Omnipotent God they seemed to have become so diminutive. Thus fortified, the inner peace and radiance burst through the filth, the scars and the coagulated blood, and formed a smile -- the onlookers said that it was a heavenly smile. The furious Japanese soldiers stared in disbelief; there was some Power here, which they had never encountered before and could not understand. How could one endure such punishment and be so close to death, and smile? They were incensed to the point of insanity. No puny, filthy prisoner would mock their disciplinary action. He must be dealt with in the same way as the Chinese.
From thirty feet away they advanced on their helpless prey. Terrified and helpless fellow prisoners stood around. They had witnessed and heard the sickening thud of each death-dealing blow. Many of them thought of the message of the Good Samaritan delivered only a few days before. On came the rushing soldiers, murder in their hearts, shrieking and yelling as they ran -- twelve feet, ten feet, eight feet, seven, six, five, four. Suddenly those baffled men skidded to a stop. They looked incredulously at each other and stared with amazement at this battered and bloody archenemy. They retreated slowly to their former position to review their strategy. They worked themselves up into a frenzy; they yelled and screamed and waved their arms around as they began their advance on their seemingly forlorn victim. Could the truth have been known I was never stronger than at that moment of human weakness. The Lord Jesus was never so precious as He was then. The power with which He surrounded Elisha at Dothan was now mine experimentally. The companionship of the Son of God that sustained the three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace was now mine in reality. I felt more than a conqueror through Him that loved me.
While breathless buddies watched, I waited -- physically weak but never more strong. Onward rushed the guards, bent on ending this sordid affair. Twelve feet, eight, six, four. Again around the three-foot mark they skidded to a stop, as though facing an invincible barrier, which they could not penetrate. Now utterly baffled and confused they stared at each other in disbelief. They were obviously bewildered. (They could understand the almost naked figure, the gaunt skeleton that stood a little unsteadily before them. He would not be the first that they had murdered, nor would he be the last.) What drove them to distraction was the look of serenity, or was it a look of triumph? Then there was this unseen Presence, the irresistible Power, and the invisible Hedge: they were baffled and perplexed. I could sense that at change in their attitude was taking place. They could find no solution to any of their immediate problems and in utter dismay and disgust they retreated into the bamboo jungle. I could hardly believe that my accusers had left, yet was not surprised, for in the days prior to my enlistment the Lord had given me the precious promise, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” This experience of abject humiliation and deliverance revealed that the God Who lived in Moses and David’s time was still alive.
Kind and loving hands came to embrace me; they carried me into one of the hospital tents and washed my sores and attended to my bruises. The road to recovery was painfully slow and during convalescence the Lord showed me still further the greatness of His power and the sweetness of His love. The men in the camp were deeply impressed by this incident. Some said, “Here is a man who practices what he preaches.” Others said, “This is a faith worth having.” Many others said, “This is a God worth trusting.” Eternity alone will reveal the work of God that was done in the hearts of many of these men.