May 1943 – Chungkai Prison Camp – Thailand: Scottish Commander Ernest Gordon lay dying in the infamous Japanese prison camp in a Thailand jungle on the bank of the Kwai River. He had been placed next to fellow prisoners of war on the muddy ground next to several corpses in the hospital/morgue, known as the “Death House.”
Gordon had penned a final letter to his parents. He told them that he loved them. Then after cursing God and the Japanese, he waited for death. It would be a welcomed escape from the hell he had experienced since being captured 15 months before.
Ernest Gordon was born in Greenock, Scotland, in 1917. During World War II, he became a company commander with the 93rd Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In 1942, at the Battle of Singapore, the Japanese captured him. Gordon, along with other POW’s, was marched into the jungles of Thailand and forced to build the notorious Burma/Thailand railroad.
On May 31, two fellow POW’s from Gordon’s unit brought their captain a rice ball trimmed with a banana in celebration of his 27th birthday. They were shocked by his condition. The next day the buddies, Dusty Miller and Dinty Moore, both Christians, arranged to get Gordon out of the hospital and carried him to a makeshift bamboo hut they had built.
After watching hundreds die from starvation, torture and disease, Gordon had accepted his fate and wanted to be left alone to die. But each night, after being forced to work from sunrise until dark on the railroad, the two men shared their meager rations with Gordon. Miller patiently cleaned the infected boils on Gordon’s bony legs and back and picked the lice from his body.
Gordon struggled to understand why two starving men would willingly share their rations with a dying man. Despite Gordon’s bitterness toward them, Miller and Moore came each night with food and tattered pages from a Bible. Another POW gave a guard his watch in exchange for medicine for Gordon. Slowly, Gordon realized the men had found the answer he needed. Their love freed him from a prison of hatred, hopelessness, and despair, and gave him new faith and a desire to live.
In the Chungkai camp, there was no church, no chaplain and no religious services. Because of his leadership position and college degree, once Gordon’s condition improved, he was asked to lead a Bible study on the edge of the camp. What began with a single verse, and his story shared with a dozen POW’s, grew to influence hundreds of men. Men stopped stealing and fighting over rations and began sharing their food. Hatred of the Japanese guards was replaced with forgiveness.
Gordan survived the war and returned to Scotland. He earned degrees at the University of London and Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut. In 1950, he was ordained by the Church of Scotland and came to Long Island, New York, to pastor churches in Amagansett and Montauk. In 1954, Gordon became the Presbyterian chaplain at Princeton University. He served at Princeton for 26 years until his retirement in 1981.
After retiring, Gordon moved to Washington, D.C. to be president of Christian Rescue Effort for the Emancipation of Dissidents, an organization that helped free prisoners from eastern European countries. He chronicled his three-year POW experience in the powerful memoir Through the Valley of the Kwai.
An estimated 60,000 allied POW’s plus 240,000 Asians workers were forced to build the 250-mile long “Death Railroad” from Thailand to Burma. Approximately 13,000 POW’s and 80,000 civilians died from the brutal conditions and were buried along the railroad.
Dinty Moore died at the end of the war when his prisoner transport ship was torpedoed on the way back to Japan. Dusty Miller escaped from Chungkai Prison but was captured and killed by the Japanese two weeks before the war ended. They died without ever knowing the legacy their love and kindness would leave. Their captain died in 2002 at age 85.
“Faith could not save us from the miserable prison camp, but it could take us through it.” Ernest Gordon