CHAPTER 10 Railway of Death

One of the costliest ventures in world history was the building of the notorious “Railway of Death,” from Bangkok to the borders of Burma. Several times foreign interests had tried to push back nature’s frontiers but the cost in money and life was prohibitive. The Japanese never counted the cost. They used the natural resources of the country and the precious lives that the fortunes of war had so completely thrust into their control. Life to them was cheap, worthless and there was plenty of it. In the final analysis it was reckoned that it cost a man’s life for every tie that was laid. This does not take into account the sweat, blood, toil, and tears, or the untold misery of the many who survived.

The morning after our arrival we awoke to the harsh “Curahs” of our guards. After a hasty breakfast of rice and water we were told to, “Speedo, all men go.” This meant everyone must go to the “Railway” and work. We could not understand this. We had marched for seventeen nights; the majority of the men were sick, very sick. Feet and legs were so swollen that the toes were hardly visible. Many of the men were lying on dirty rice sacks. Some had vomited all around them, some too helpless to move were lying in their own filth; others had tossed in the agonies of malarial fever the whole night.

“All men?” we protested vigorously. “All men,” the soulless guards replied, and then they commenced to use the persuader. Under the threats, and blows of rifle butts, men crawled and staggered weakly to join their helpless comrades on parade.

My blood boiled -- my whole being revolted -- never in the history of modern warfare had such inhuman cruelty been displayed. I wondered, as I prayed for strength for myself and the other wrecks of humanity, if such barbaric conduct could be forgiven, “Why doesn’t God act?” I thought. “Why does He allow this to go on?” These questions, to a large extent, are still unanswered.

This was the first time that I had ever questioned the ways of God, and in quieter moments I have often rebuked myself.

Painfully we made our way through the foul-smelling jungle. The air was filled with the high-pitched hum of parasite-laden mosquitoes, which had kept the interior of Thailand uninhabited for thousands of years. We carried our friends on improvised stretchers, and on our backs. All day long we stood in the merciless sun swinging hammers and twisting drills, boring holes into the solid rock. When the holes were deep enough, dynamite was inserted and the whole area was blasted. The shattered rocks were then put into baskets, which were passed down a long line of men and emptied at some chosen spot. From twelve to sixteen hours a day we worked, sweated, nursed our sores, and prayed for better days.

Slowly we blasted our way through mountains, felled huge trees, then laboriously inched them into position on rollers and sledges. Somehow the Japanese engineers threw bridges across raging torrents, murky brown rivers, and over deep ravines. We cut and hacked our way into the depth of the hostile jungle.

During these torturous months I found only one answer to the grim conditions that threatened to engulf us -- my faith in the Lord. I tried to share this faith with others and found many open ears to pour the words of Scripture into. Many a heartfelt prayer went up to the Throne of God from these jungle wastelands.

Surrounded on every hand by bamboo jungle, with no possible way of escape, we faced a living death. Hygiene became a thing of the past. To wash in the river sometimes brought death by the most dread enemy in the camp, cholera, so we preferred the filth and stench of stinking bodies. We oftentimes longed for rain; only then could we safely wash, or at least wet our bodies, for at this time there was no such thing as soap. Only the very sick failed to luxuriate in the tropical showers. During days of drought we often joked of washing in a cup and bathing in a mess tin.

Food was very scarce. Our daily diet was hardly enough for a bird, much less a full-grown man. Our stomachs must have shrunk for it seemed that very little filled them. We were just walking skeletons. The food ration had hardly changed form Singapore days although our work was much harder and longer. We worked from sunup until the assignment was completed for that day. Often it was six or seven in the evening, and occasionally as late as 10 p.m., before we completed our work. Japanese guards held huge torches while we worked in the darkness.

Under such a limited diet, the temptation was great to obtain food by any and all means available. Not even the severest of punishment could dissuade the starving men from seeking relief from their hunger. The black market flourished. There are always the tough guys in every situation. These were unprincipled and unscrupulous, but very brave. They would slink through the barbed wire in the dark and raid old army food dumps in the rubber plantations, then return to sell their booty at black market prices. Every community has its villains and the prison camps in no way lagged behind.

Hunger pains drove men relentlessly into unprecedented situations. Can you picture a man from a good family, holding a responsible job in civilian life, sitting almost nude grasping a piece of knotted string in his hand. This man is aged far beyond his years, his almost fleshless bones protrude through his blotchy skin, and his eyes are sunk deep in his head. He holds that string intently; he seems to be in a world of his own. The end of the string is attached to a piece of wood which, when pulled, causes some bricks to collapse. Beneath these bricks are scattered a few precious grains of rice. They were placed there in the hope of attracting or enticing an unwary sparrow. A quick pull on the string makes the bricks collapse, and a starving man’s hunger is curbed.

The dread enslavement of habit trapped some men. One former American professor, who had suffered heavily in the Wall Street crash of 1929-30, had lost his mental balance slightly and left his high post. Enlisting as an ordinary seaman, the man had been captured by the enemy on the high seas and brought into the prison camp. When one of the two Red Cross parcels admitted by the Japanese came through, he sold his portion for a few cigarettes. Then, unable to sleep he sat up and smoked them all.

Many other men were enslaved by the tobacco habit. They deprived themselves of food to satisfy their craving. Some smoked dried tealeaves, paper, and grass in an attempt to stifle the torture within. A most distasteful experience was when Japanese soldiers came into the camp smoking their evil-smelling and cheap cigarettes -- some prisoners would fall over each other grabbing for their discarded filthy butts. The sneer on their faces at such degradation was repulsive.

Hunger was a terrible master; some men paid dearly for falling victim to its dictates. A desperately hungry Australian youth tried to buy a few bananas from one of the natives outside the barbed wire. This was forbidden by both the Japanese and by our own command; the risk involved was tremendous. Unfortunately the youth was caught. The guard commander, continuing the Japanese reputation as past masters in the art of torture, stuffed the man’s mouth with chili, many times hotter than pepper. Then they made him stand in the blazing sun, with his hands raised above his head. When his hands began to droop, they prodded him with a bayonet until he fell unconscious. Doused with a bucket of cold water, he quickly revived, only to go through the same ordeal again. He returned to the lines in a state of physical and mental exhaustion and received what little help the Medical Corps could give him.

There were dozens of such incidents every day. Our guards never gave up in their relentless search for would be offenders. If no real criminals were found, someone would be incriminated. Prisoners must be subjugated; the superiority of the guards must be flaunted.

One day I was assigned as medical orderly to a working party, which was building a bridge across a ravine. About 120 feet deep and 65 feet across, the mountain gorge presented a real problem with many obstacles. Some of the working force was laboring on top, drilling holes for dynamiting the rock to be removed. Others were employed in the cold depth of the chasm. Suddenly, without warning to us who were working below, the Japanese engineers began blasting. Huge pieces of rocks and debris crashed into the ravine, fatally wounding one Japanese soldier and wounding many of the prisoners. As the noise of the explosion died down, I raised my head and looked around at my stricken buddies and immediately the words of the Psalmist came to mind, “A thousand shall fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come nigh you” (Psalm 91:7).

The Japanese were really unpredictable; they could show their gold teeth in a beautiful smile and in the next instant lay you out cold with a blow from some instrument.

Restriction had been imposed on all gatherings, no meetings of any kind were to be held. This was a severe blow to the little group of believers, so we decided to run the gauntlet. Many evenings we stealthily made our way in the darkness to an empty hut and conversed and encouraged each other in Christ; these seasons of fellowship were invaluable. One night as we sat in a close circle praying together, we became conscious that someone else was present; we had the feeling that we were being watched.

Suddenly a match was struck, and in the flickering light we saw the form of a Japanese guard. Fear gripped our hearts. As best we could, by Pidgin English and gestures, we told him that we were praying to God. He replied in broken English, “You know Jesus, I know Jesus in Japan. Okay, okay. All men go-go,” he admonished. We did not need a second bidding. We vanished into the night. The rest of the waking hours that night was spent praising the Lord for our deliverance. Had that been any other guard, some of us might have paid for it with our lives. With grateful hearts we closed our eyes that night convinced that Daniel’s God was still alive.

I often wonder at the background of this incident, and in my mind can picture some missionaries laboring hard in Japan and being discouraged at the lack of fruit. They will be surprised when in the Glory they learn that their faithful witness was the means used by God to save the lives of six young prisoners of war.

There were many tragedies in the camp. Tragedy did not always mean death -- the living tragedies were pitiful to watch. Men lost their sight and their hearing. Many lost the coordination of their limbs and worst of all, some became mentally deranged.

One of the prisoners, a former first violinist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, found his hands and arms attacked by dreadful tropical ulcers. This was unusual, for ulcers usually attacked the lower leg. The doctors failed to find a way to halt the spread of this canker. After much consultation and postponing of the decision they finally decided to amputate in the interest of the patient’s life. The musician protested vigorously and refused to allow the operation. Continuing expert care by doctors and orderlies finally arrested the growth of the ulcers, and after a while they slowly began to heal. When he was able, the proud artist -- very grateful for the use of his hands and fingers -- made himself a miniature piano keyboard and sat and practiced by the hour to keep his hands in shape. The sequel to the story is this: we had the good fortune to hear this man play the violin, and it thrilled our hearts.