Long Way Back to
The River Kwai

Memories of World War II
Loet Velmans
With the entry of the Nazis in Holland in 1940, Loet Velmans and his family fled from Amsterdam to England, thence to Jakarta. "Here we'll be safe," they thought. Then came the Japanese.

Velmans was seventeen at the time of his capture and he ended up with over a quarter-million other men working on a railroad being built by the Japanese military from Bangkok through the Thai and Burmese jungles --- the famed "River Kwai" railroad.

If you remember the movie, you probably recall those scenes of POWs sweating and moving logs around and the Japanese general Sessue Hayakawa and the British commander Alec Guiness companionably building a fine wooden bridge over the river.

What the film didn't show you was the over 40% mortality rate among the POWs and the gratuitous starvation, working and living conditions that created beriberi, malaria, pellagra and dysentery. Nor did it show the routine beatings the Japanese gave to the POWs, in some cases, casually pummeling them to death.

Velmans is a stoic, both in the story he has to tell of his prison life, and the way he tells it. Here he was, an innocent who one day was thinking on his girlfriend back in Lyons, on the next damn near dying in the jungle, building a railroad that not only killed thousands of innocent prisoners in its construction, but ended up being totally useless (the Japanese wanted to use it so they could invade India; the moment it was built, the allies bombed it back into the jungle.)

What the author could not figure then, what he cannot figure now, is the random, daily acts of viciousness by the Japanese. Who were these people? "How an entire nation could get its kicks from beating and torturing its prisoners?" he asks:

    Brutalizing us prisoners seemed to give the Japanese soldier an extra dimension of satisfaction. Sitting around and comparing my own emaciated arms and legs to the wasted bones of a half dozen of my mates, I got into a heated argument? Could there be any other side to the Japanese?

And how did he survive? In a universe where all but two of his friends succumbed to beatings, sickness, and starvation, how did Velmans manage to make it? He claims it was a combination of luck, youth, and numbness. "I succeeded in insulating myself from my mates, burying myself in my small individual space." All of them were too blitzed out by pain and sickness, he says, to even consider suicide.

Even though he worked some time in a small clinic near the railroad --- no medicine, no medical help --- he shut the dying and dead from his mind. "Death," he said later, became "the ultimate broken promise."

Finally, there were the little deceptions he played --- not on the enemy, but on himself. When he was eating his watery soup, he pretended it was a great gastronomic delight, one of the meals he had enjoyed back in Amsterdam. He also, perhaps unwittingly, took a leaf from the AA book. He lived each day at a time. On Sunday he would stand alone, congratulating himself for making it through another week, and planning, if possible, to live one more.

There are some wonderful/awful touches in Long Way Back to the River Kwai. The story of the thriving black market in prison, the Japanese guards' insatiable appetite for watches. The plays put on by the prisoners in Changi Jail, with one female impersonator they called "Judy Garland" --- so good at his act that the Japanese command would not let him perform until they had lifted up his skirt to check.

Then there is his reporting of what he and his mates felt like when they looked through a Life Magazine smuggled into prison: "It took a day to devour, and a week or two to commit to memory, the magazines' pages of mouthwatering food advertisements." Then there was his score-keeping on the number of bedbugs he had killed in a single night.

In a passage of unlikely art, he tells of the colors of the wounds of his fellow prisoners, "The withering dying seemed to determined to prove the point that color is not always beautiful."

    It was as if they had been painted in the ugliest yellow fleshtone imaginable, mottled with streaks of lurid pink. A rainbow accompanied approaching death --- blue, green, and purple.

Finally, there is the living death that overtook them at the very end. When the Armistice was announced, he and his fellow prisoners at Changi prison did not even bother to go out of the gates even though the guards had disappeared. Those movies we see of the prisoners jumping and shouting and laughing and crying when victory comes are as false as the fabled bridge over the river.

§     §     §

The mortality rate among Asians in Japanese-occupied countries between 1937 and 1945 was not much less than the mortality rate for the Jews in Europe. But the war crimes trials in Tokyo resulted in the conviction of less than five dozen Japanese, and the execution of only a handful. The conclusion, says Velmans, sixty years after the fact:

    I convinced myself that the entire Japanese nation had overlooked, papered over, trivialized, or forgotten the atrocities committed in the name of its emperor. The country quietly embraced the returning soldiers as heroes, the Japanese nation felt victimized. The atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the ultimate injustice. No Japanese seemed able to admit that an enemy might have suffered, too. No blame could be laid at their own door.

Velmans is a straightforward, thoughtful, and powerful writer. He wins us over with his direct style, free of arrogance and self-pity. He remains one of thousands of heroic soldiers, those who fought, lost, surrendered, were brutalized, traumatized and are now, by most, forgotten.

--- Laura W. Kelley
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