Ernest Gordon: Building Heaven in the Midst of POW Hell

Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman provided recently in this space a rich account of the hymn "Amazing Grace," a song that is as close to universally known as any and that has an affecting power matched by few. This post is a story of that kind of grace, as it descended on a scene of suffering and cruelty of a depth rarely survived or recorded.

In the summer of 1939, Ernest Gordon, a young Scotsman, knew that war was imminent. He had been a Royal Air Force pilot injured in an aircraft accident, had studied philosophy and law at the University of St. Andrews, and had been recently enjoying the life of an avid sailor. He was a vigorous, young Renaissance man, though little concerned with spiritual questions.

Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; Ernest Gordon in center

Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; Ernest Gordon in center

When the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the non-aggression pact that would accelerate the slide towards war, Gordon sought and received a commission in the heralded 93rd Highlanders, the Argylls Battalion. This moment would begin two simultaneous journeys for him, one physical and geographical as he went with his unit into combat in southeast Asia, the other spiritual as he underwent a misery and desperation that killed many of those around him. These journeys are described in Gordon’s book, Through the Valley of the Kwai.

Between 1939 and 1941, Gordon’s unit moved south through England, across the English Channel to France, on through the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, before finally joining British forces in Malaya. As those forces retreated down the peninsula before the Japanese assault, the Argylls were reduced from 1000 men to 120. The survivors crossed to Singapore just before the causeway across from Malaya was destroyed. By the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February, 1942, only some 30 Argylls remained. With Gordon’s unit destroyed as an effective combat force, he looked for a way to follow the last standing orders for British forces in Singapore, to escape if possible.

With a band of nine others, Gordon set sail on a perilous attempt to reach Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), still under British control. After facing disease, a ripped mainsail that required repairs on a small island, and even a tribal war that had to be resolved before the repairs could be made, Gordon and his companions thought they were home free for safe haven. But as they neared Ceylon, a Japanese tanker convoy spotted them, and Gordon became a prisoner of war for the next three and a half years. His journey would take him to the notorious camps along the River Kwai in Thailand, where the Japanese were building a railroad through the jungle.

Ernest Gordon, one month before being captured by the Japanese

Ernest Gordon, one month before being captured by the Japanese

In the almost indescribably horrific conditions of those camps, death was a daily reality for the prisoners. The cruelty of the guards, the wretched food, the dangerous and incessant labor, and disease left the prisoners in a state that would best be described as subhuman. At this nadir of the possibilities of the human condition, Gordon’s second, spiritual journey began.

Gordon describes the attitude of the prisoners in the early days of the railroad construction as survival-of-the-fittest, every-man-for-himself-and-damn-the-others. The prisoners were as far as imaginable from the civilization from which they had come. Acts of kindness were rare and rendered only with an accompanying cynicism that marked the success of the Japanese, who had vowed to reduce the prisoners to a state worse than the lowest coolies in Asia.

But two extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice occurred and changed the tenor of the camp, at least for some. One prisoner was discovered to have starved himself to death to provide rations to a dying friend. Another accepted the death penalty imposed by the guards for the alleged theft of a shovel: when the guards threatened to kill all the members of a work party if the thief did not come forward, this prisoner claimed to be the culprit. Shortly after his execution, the shovel was found in its usual place, miscounted rather than missing.

These acts of magnificent self-giving launched a spirit that soon reached Gordon himself. At his lowest point, after suffering from malaria, appendicitis, diphtheria, various parasites, and other diseases, he lay crippled at one end of the camp morgue, written off as beyond hope by the British doctors. But some friends built a small shelter for him, and two men in particular came to his aid. Dusty Miller, a down-to-earth Protestant Christian who in civilian life was a gardener, and Dinty Moore, a Roman Catholic who managed to maintain his polished sense of style even in a loincloth, alternated shifts bathing Gordon, caring for his wounds, and massaging his legs to help him gain the strength to walk again.

With these acts of bodily kindness, Gordon began to sense the grace that was growing from similar cases around the camp. With the testimony-in-action of Miller and Moore, his interest in religion grew. Previously, religion in the camps had been transactional: prisoners turned to God for relief, and, when that relief did not appear in short order, they did not persevere. Now, a real faith took hold.

And quite suddenly, the men regained their fundamental human quality, a sense of wonder about truth, beauty, and goodness in a place utterly deprived of all three. They became men again, from the beasts they had become. Books long hidden in ragged packs were shared and classes taught. A theatre was established, including a ballet performance. An orchestra came together using instruments from a Red Cross shipment that the Japanese had no use for, with woodwinds crafted from bamboo. Most significantly, an open-air church was established and services begun as classes and discussions on faith took hold and flourished.

From the most basic acts of physical kindness, a culture emerged. Civilization returned along with faith. Here is Gordon’s description of the crucial intervention of grace:

The wind of the spirit had blown upon us; we could not prove how or whence it had come. But our experience pointed to a source beyond ourselves. We knew personal fulfillment, love, joy, peace, wholeness, as we committed ourselves to the one who called us. Only as we responded to this Word did we receive the power to progress towards true humanity. Our life on the horizontal plane was made meaningful at the point where it was met by the vertical. At the point marked by the Cross we found ourselves.

Gordon survived. And while redemption was abundant, there was no Hollywood happy ending, in human terms. Dinty Moore died when a Japanese ship on which he was being transported – unmarked by a Red Cross, as a POW ship should have been – was sunk by an Allied submarine. Dusty Miller attracted the attention of Japanese guards who determined to break his faith and spirit. Unable to succeed in that, they crucified him to a tree.

Ernest Gordon, 2000

Ernest Gordon, 2000

Gordon himself returned to a Scotland very different from the one he had left in 1939. He grew disillusioned with the bureaucratic and materialist spirit he found around him, so different from what he had encountered on his spiritual journey through the camps. But he married, decided to study theology, and eventually became the Presbyterian chaplain at Princeton University.

From Scotland, to the camps of the Asian jungle, back to Scotland and America. From youthful spirit unconcerned with religion, to fence-sitting agnostic, to man of enduring faith. Two journeys, one story of amazing grace.


Joseph R. Wood serves as a research and seminar Fellow for Cana Academy. This blog post is based on his Cana Academy VISIONS presentation at Hubbard Hill Retirement Community in Elkhart, IN, October, 2017.

Header image of part of the "Death Railway" by makilica, used under CC by 2.0. All images of Ernest Gordon courtesy of Alastair Gordon: Wall to Wall.