Ernest Gordon as a POW. At the end of the war, the six foot Gordon weighed less than 100 pounds.
Gordon (1916-2002) and Takashi Nagase (1918-2011), one of his guards in the Japanese camp.
Ernest Gordon was a Scottish POW in World War II. He wrote Miracle on the River Kwai to tell the story of his experiences at the hands of the Japanese as he and his fellow soldiers were force to work on the Burma-Siam Railway (the story behind the 1957 movie The Bridge On the River Kwai).
As conditions steadily worsened, as starvation, exhaustion and disease took an ever-growing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived was increasingly poisoned by selfishness, hatred, and fear. We were slipping rapidly down the scale of degradation. We lived by the rule of the jungle; survival of the fittest. It was a case of “I look out for myself and to hell with everyone else.” The weak were trampled underfoot, the sick ignored or resented, the dead forgotten. When a man lay dying, we had no word of mercy. When he cried for our help, we averted our heads. We had long since resigned ourselves to being derelicts. We were forsaken men, and now, even God had left us. Hate, for some, was the only motivation for living. We hated the Japanese. We would willingly have torn them limb from limb, flesh from flesh, had they fallen into our hands.
At the end of each day the tools were collected from the work party. On one occasion a Japanese guard shouted that a shovel was missing and demanded to know which man had taken it. He began to rant and rave, working himself up into a paranoid fury and ordered whoever was guilty to step forward. No one moved. “All die! All die!” he shrieked, cocking and aiming his rifle at the prisoners. At that moment one man stepped forward. The guard clubbed him to death with his rifle while he stood silently to attention. When they returned to the camp, the tools were counted again and no shovel was missing.
Word of this spread like wildfire through the whole camp. An innocent man had been willing to die to save the others. This one man’s selfless sacrifice revolutionized the camp’s atmosphere. Many sought out answers about how to prepare for death and be ready to meet God. Ernest Gordon became the unofficial camp chaplain. A small church was erected and prayer was held nightly. “Faith,” Gordon said, “thrives when there is no hope but God.” God did not disappoint.
The men began to treat each other like brothers, with care and kindness. Gordon describes the effect:
Death was still with us, but we were slowing being freed from its destructive grip. We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between forces that made for life and those that made for death. Selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy, greed, self-intelligence, laziness, and pride were anti-life. Love, heroism, self-sacrifice, sympathy, mercy, integrity and creative faith, were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in the truest sense. These were gifts of God to men. There was still hatred, but there was also love. There was death, but there was also life. God had not left us. He was with us, calling us to live the divine life in fellowship.
After the war, Ernest became a Presbyterian pastor. He eventually moved to the United States where he became the dean of the chapel at Princeton University.
to give and not count the cost,
to fight and not heed the wounds,
to toil and not seek for rest,
to labor and not look for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.