Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sentimental journey

Mike and I are interested in history, and the town of Kanchanaburi and its surrounding area are rife with memories of the Japanese occupation there during WWII. There are well-tended cemeteries, memorials, and museums. Soldiers still come to pay their respects to their lost comrades and to remember.

I had come out of the JEATH museum wanting to learn more about Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop, an Australian medical officer who had saved hundreds of men from death in the prison camps from 1943-1945, a surgeon fighting tropical disease, starvation, wounds from maltreatment and accidents, a man who, in the words of one of the prisoners became "a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering."

In other words, a hero.

We made a pilgrimage to the Hellfire Pass Museum, an Australian tribute to "fallen mates" and others: the many who were lost building the Burma-Thailand railway under the Japanese, the railway better known as the Death Railway. It was a professional, stark and moving memorial to more than 100,000 perished souls.

Hellfire Pass is so-named because the noise and eerie lights and shadows from the men working all night long to cut through a seemingly impassible section of rock resembled the "Fires of Hell". It was probably the very worst portion of the inutterably horrific construction of the Death Railway.

A station on the Burma-Thailand Railway

We removed our shoes and walked slowly, solemnly, through the exhibits. Actually, Mike and I did: our guide watched Bethy and Thomas for us. Our children are, in many ways, strangers to the concepts of slow and solemn.

After we left the museum we hiked through the bamboo forest along the same path the emaciated prisoners traveled to a dangerous 18 hours of forced heavy labor each day, around the clock. Once a day they were given a handful of rice to eat.

Sometimes they would give their handful to a mate who was ill and go without themselves.

Sometimes they would ask for the share of a man who had just died.

It was here that Weary Dunlop tended to the men, even taking beatings for his patients when the Japanese guards insisted deathly ill men would have to work or be beaten. He kept a secret and detailed diary; had it been discovered he would have been executed. In it his Aussie humor comes out in wry ways: "Because I was pretty tall I had to bend over so the Japanese could hit me."

One of Weary's patients was a man named Bill Griffiths who had lost both his eyes and his hands. After his accident, the Japanese decided that he was of no use to then any more. Weary had saved his life once when he operated on him after the crippling accident, once when he convinced Bill to live and not give up, and this was the third time: he stood between bayonets and Bill and told the guards that if they were going to kill his patient they would have to kill him first.

It was at Hellfire Pass that Weary Dunlop's ashes are scattered, so many years after he had somehow survived, after he had served and saved so many.

It was a strangely quiet, and in many ways, a sacred place. I looked at the metal plaque honoring Weary Dunlop afixed to the stone walls of the passage and breathed a silent sort of thank you to him. The hope that he gave outlives even the war, even his life, an example of compassion and courage to us all.

Worn out from carrying the kids and perhaps from the emotional debt of what we had learned, we were glad to get back into our bus and ride to our next destination, a cave used by Allied medics during WWII to nurse the sick and wounded prisoners of war.

Inside the cave was a giant golden buddha, bats squeaking from shadowed crevices high above, a little girl selling jasmine garlands at the entrance. There was no echo of its history: it was just a cave to us now.

Emerging from the cave into the light, Thomas made two new friends who wanted photographs with him,

and then we waited for a train to come to the station. It was a jolly ride, fans oscillating overhead, the fields of tapioca, photographers going crazy out the windows to photograph the scenery going by, the conductor and the beer seller coming by.

When we got off the train I realised, my God, we just rode on the Death Railway. The Death Railway. I had nearly been moved to tears at both JEATH and the Hellfire Pass museums, yet not once during that trip along the railway did I think of all those men who died to build it. Those were sons, brothers, fathers, how could I not think of them?

Mike agreed, he hadn't given a moment's thought to those men the entire ride either. What was wrong with us?

Back at the hotel, I asked Evelien about it.

She agreed. I do not know why, she said, but it is true. You never think of them on that train. Then she added at least you are not the Japanese tourists making silly faces posing for photographs at the Hellfire Pass Museum.

That was true, we were not that. But it was sobering nevertheless.

Do you think that sort of, I suppose thoughtlessness would be the correct word, is a consequence of not living somewhere but of being ... just ... a tourist?


Jean said...

Don't be hard on yourself, Natalie. You are so much more than just a tourist. You are far more prepared than most travelers and have a real appreciation of what you are seeing. Don't worry about not being able to absorb everything, body and soul, on one short visit. Just enjoy the ride, as it were, and be glad that you have some understanding of the experience.

Mom2ABJ said...

Beautiful set of blogs, Natalie. I am almost embarrassed that you have experienced so much more of my native country than I may ever have the opportunity to do ...

Hope you are enjoying the holidays in Dubai!

Anonymous said...

I think perhaps those who built the railway would be happy that out of such a tragic time came joy and peace to others. Perhaps you don't think of them because their spirits don't want you to dwell on their sacrifice, but to live in your own time and in your own way.
I never thought of the Mather Highway near Mt. Rainier either until the National Parks Documentary by Ken Burns told of Mather's great accomplishments in giving us so many parks including Mt.Rainier. Now I will bless him whenever we drive Rt. 410.
Happy Holidays,Mom

AKBrady said...

Natalie, amazing. My former father-in-law built the Death Railway as part of his jungle prison sentence after his ship was sunk by the Japanese. He spent the entire length of WWII there. I am humbled to know you were there, and to see it today. Wow. WOW. I'll have to tell him; he just turned 92.

Natalie said...

Thank you so much to you all, Jean, Suriya, and Fran, you're lovely. An especial thank you to AKBrady...I was really touched by your comment. Wow back to you.

Ian said...

Many hardships and suffering there. Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop was one man who made a difference to the lives of others, who gave of himself and encouraged others during difficult times.

Good post,good read. Thanks.