At first, it’s hard to tell what it is, a section of flesh against a canvas backdrop, a limb, oddly posed on a little stool or step, gradually revealing itself to be a man’s leg with tropical ulcers, the calf deformed, bent in the wrong direction, and scarred by pockmarks or perforations, like blackened cavities. The pale foot, almost lost in the light, has been flattened out, splayed, as if crushed by something heavy.
My father was all-thumbs when it came to anything mechanical, so I helped him set up the projector in the back of the living room. I propped it up with a book so that the lens was pointing at the right angle. We set up the retractable “Rocket” movie screen in the far corner of the living room, the same corner where the Christmas tree always went. When he gave me the signal, I would walk around the room and switch off all the lights so that the presentation could begin.
Setting up the machine and showing the slides was something of a ritual, a way to get closer to my father and that part of his life that I barely understood. For me it became a rite of passage: I would take the slides out of the yellow box and hand them to him, one by one, each in its “Ready-Mount” cardboard sleeve, each one numbered. The machine’s cooling fan was so loud that he had to raise his voice to be heard above the whirring noise. He told his war story in simple, elliptical sentences: the battles, wounds and imprisonment boiled down to essential ingredients, stages of a pilgrimage, a kind of 20th Century Pilgrim’s Progress, that led inevitably to the central mission in his life: his ministry, his faithful service to Christ.
The projector had a powerful bulb that sliced through the gloom and made a perfect cone of light. More images flashed by: ghostly apparitions clustered around a pyre, bodies near the edge of a pit, men in loincloths, lined up with vacant faces, humiliated and exhausted, hands tied behind their backs, the stump of a severed arm, a makeshift prosthesis made from bamboo, a hand resting on a bloated belly, hands holding onto shovels or carrying logs to shore up the rail bed. I try to imagine him there, but it fills me with anxiety. Some of the figures are slumped over, dying or already dead, struggling to sit up and put on a smile for the stealthy photographer. Overlapping ridges of stone appear rumpled and folded. Vines and branches fuse into tangled adumbrations. Human limbs metamorphose into aerial pockets of dust. As far as my mother was concerned, these were forbidden images, and she scolded my father for letting me stay and watch, claiming I was far too young. A few months later, she relented and agreed to let me stay up to help him. After all, she had criticized him for not spending more time with me, so at the least, this was a form of father-son bonding.
He had a story for every slide–the soldier who stole a single potato and was hung by his thumbs; three officers who tried to escape, were caught and executed without trial–but there are moments when he loses concentration, pauses to clear his throat, straining, working the mechanism, sometimes fretfully, in an effort to regain whatever stream of thought he had going.
I look back at my father, standing beside the projector, talking to the guests, (grad students, friends, visiting faculty) who’d been invited for dinner, not necessarily suspecting that they’d be watching a slide show about the Railway of Death. They shake their heads in disbelief, look at one another and then look up at him, tall and handsome, wondering how he managed to make it back alive.
The next slide shows a cartoon-like sequence of torture: a man being wrapped in barbed wire, a hose forced down his throat, his stomach pumped full of water, and then he was kicked to death.
How did it make me feel to see these images as an eight-year-old? It was sickening, and in some cases I closed my eyes and refused to look, but it was also how I learned about my father’s war, about his long ordeal and though I often wished he was more like other dads–dads who showed vacation slides of Yosemite and the Jersey shore–I knew that this was what set him apart and made him a heroic figure in many people’s eyes.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but my father was just beginning to form a narrative, finding a way to speak about the unspeakable, while learning to map out his own internal landscape, trying out different voices, different story lines on his dinner guests, and he used the slides as prompts to help him reconstruct the most convincing sequence of events. (Years later, I would learn that several important parts of the story had been left out.) It would be at least another year before he sat down to write his own book about the Kwai River, but the informal slide talks were a formative part of the process.
There were periods when it felt as if I were living among the forbidden images, and they were like sentient beings, phantoms and figures, lost souls, rising from the darkest part of my father’s psyche and sneaking into our peaceful home–the faces of the dead, voiceless and forsaken–haunting my eight-year-old imagination.
I crouch in a corner, patting Fiona, our four-year-old Golden Retriever, and listen to my father’s voice coming from the back of the room, explaining how the darkness serves as a background for the light, a common theme: darkness as background for light, punctuated by relevant passages from the Bible: “Light shall shine out of darkness… The people who walk in darkness will see a great light…” But who was this man who called himself my father? Sometimes, I looked up in disbelief, and it feels as if I have two fathers: one who is healthy, robust and living in the present; the other who is beaten, almost dead, imprisoned in the past.
More than once he rushes the presentation and forces a slide into the chute before the last one has been properly retrieved. A tiny flange on the aluminum sleeve bends back and causes an irrevocable jam, forcing the slides to sandwich together and produce a bizarre double exposure: a map of Thailand overlaid with a belly distended from beriberi.
The photos are grainy and out of focus, often shot with primitive, handmade devices. Many of the exposures were ruined by jungle humidity, and the images simply dissolved or went completely black.
Being caught with any kind of camera brought severe punishment; often death, and many of the images in my father’s slide show were shot at great personal risk. George Aspinall, a young Australian POW, concealed a folding Kodak 2 camera throughout his period of captivity. He used single strips of X-ray film that he’d stolen from a warehouse in Singapore and learned how to process the negatives himself, in the middle of the night, pouring fixative into bamboo containers, rinsing the negatives in a stream near the camp. (Aspinall’s most iconic photograph shows three human scarecrows standing in front of the medical tent at Shimo Songkurai).
Some possess the density of early glass-plate photographs, an eerie sense of time withheld, the way that light filters through the tiny aperture over a long exposure. Some are so murky and out of focus that it’s impossible to tell what’s taking place within the darker folds and overlapping shades of gray. In one, (“Dysentery Block, Kanya, 1943”), a shadowy black mass pushes forward at an angle, dividing the composition into four equal sections. Towards the left, there are poles, a low fence and a cluster of human figures lying on the ground. Perhaps these are the dysentery patients gathered in their misery, hanging over the open latrines, but it might just as easily be a stack of lumber, or sacks of rice.
In another, also by Aspinall, there’s a platform made from bamboo with a stream running through it, or it might be a raft sinking into the river, and there’s a tangle of human bodies crouching to one side, as in Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, huddling together in a single mass. Are they washing themselves in the river or are they cowering in fear? Another shows the railway cutting at Hellfire Pass and it looks as though the rock embankments have liquefied into molten matter, as if the film’s emulsion of cellulose nitrate had dissolved, the only certainty being the curving metal rails that catch the light as they recede towards a narrow cleavage of light.
When I first saw the man hanging on the wall, I assumed it was my father, and I kept looking for his face among the skeletal figures lifting railroad ties, or among the men waiting to be fed, gaunt-faced armies and their emaciated bodies, ashen, toothless, burdened and dark-eyed in the slow, blurred exposures taken with secret pin-hole cameras. Would I be able to recognize his face among so many others? There was a line of them waiting for their daily ration of rice. One of them had a hairline that receded in such a way that it might have been my dad.
I would gaze into the shallow darkness, anticipating a moment of recognition, hoping to find him there, in the middle of a group or in the jungle that loomed around the periphery of the frame, but so many of the photographs had been corrupted by tropical humidity and it was impossible to tell. Would he not stand out for being taller than the others? Would he not emerge from the background as a gaunt and emaciated presence, if only I looked hard enough? Sometimes I imagined that he had only just stepped outside the camera’s frame, but was actually there, only a few feet removed from recognition.
Another showed a group of POWS lowering a railway sleeper into place–it must have been further north, near Takanum–and one of the workers, a figure on the left, wearing only a hat and loincloth, had the same shoulders as my father, but he was turned away from the camera at such an angle, and it was impossible to see any facial features.
Then there were the drawings, the hurried charcoal sketches and ink renderings scratched onto paper with a bamboo nib. These were as disturbing as the photographs, maybe even worse. Drawing was strictly forbidden in the camps, so the renderings were done in haste and then, just as quickly, concealed. Philip Meninsky was caught doing a caricature of a Japanese officer at Tarsau and beaten senseless, close to death. It was an act of resistance, and perhaps it was the fear, the sense of defiance, that made the images so urgent and, in some ways, closer to reality than the photographs. Unnecessary details–facial features, fingers and hair–were left out, and this made for a raw kind of expressionism made up of bold gestures and elementary forms.
Jack Chalker sketched a pack of fifty men crammed inside a salt car, all shadow and overlapping forms, except for a single beam of slanting light. The drawings of Lt. John Mennie, a former bombardier in the Royal Field Artillery, were starkly metaphysical: elongated figures walking through battered landscapes with lightly rendered, almost ethereal, backgrounds. Leo Rawlings, who my father knew at Chungkai, drew the railway viaduct at Wampo with a burnt stick, in deep chiaroscuro. He managed to capture the complexity of the crisscrossing timbers, the improbable geometries, the turn of track, the semi-vertical baulks stacked in seven tiers, curving and diminishing in perspective, shrinking in size as they receded into the distance, not an easy effect to achieve with nothing but a burnt stick. (Rawlings hid his artwork in an old milk tin that he kept buried behind the latrines. Mennie rolled his artwork into a bamboo walking stick.)
The artists improvised with whatever materials they could find. Brushes were made from bamboo and human hair, colors from wild flowers and onion skins. Pigments were ground down and bound with rice water. Charles Thrale mixed his reds from boiled roots and lipstick. Rawlings made his browns out of blood and clay, his greens from crushed leaves, his blacks from boot polish mixed with ash.
At some point, after my ninth birthday, I learned how to load the slides myself, remembering to drop them into the holder backwards and upside down, not fully understanding how the imagery was reversed–quite mysteriously–by an internal alignment of mirrors. I pushed the mechanical arm into the side of a box-shaped apparatus–to the sound of soft alloy dragging against hardened steel–and it caught a crimped notch on the sleeve, pulling the slide through a slot into the body of the machine, sometimes requiring a jiggle of the red plastic knob or a gentle push to force it through.
Gradually, I became quite an accomplished operator, better than my father, and he allowed me do run the machine myself, which gave him more freedom to concentrate on his talks. He would give me a nod, meaning that I was supposed to advance the next slide and adjust the lens so that each image came into focus. At one point he bought a special attachment, a kind of multi-slotted magazine that allowed us to load as many as twenty slides at a time and project them without interruption. I became quite obsessed with the machine, the powerful AO-300 slide projector, manufactured in Chelsea, Massachusetts, with its gray, non-chip finish. I read the instruction manual and learned how to clean all the parts with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol. “The Model AO-300 provides the rugged construction, uniform illumination and superior blower-cooled operation for which American Optical projectors are justly famous,” read the manual. I wanted to understand how it worked, so I unscrewed the side panel and drew a cut-away rendering of the inner workings–all the wires, switches, mirrors, lenses–as accurately as I could manage.
While operating the projector, I observed how the light was more compressed after it came out of the lens and how it widened and began to dissipate as it reached further across the darkened room. Flecks of dust were caught in the celestial cone of light and they were swept upwards by drafts of air. It was all about the angle of light, luminous precision, the focus, reading through the penumbra, forcing oneself to look without distraction, to stare into the tumescent gloom, into the deepest part of the shadow, the umbra, and continue looking until you found the thing or the person you were searching for.
I wondered if the dust was everywhere, or only isolated within the tapered channel of light and multiplied there, as if breeding. Did the light curve around the darkness, or did the darkness give shape to the light? I imagined a luminous world in which humans were specks of dust caught in the cone of light for a moment before drifting into the infinite abyss.
“God is light and in him is no darkness,” said my father who concluded his talk with the image of a jungle altar and a message about how God came into the camps towards the end of captivity and brought a spirit of self-sacrifice and compassion that flourished among his comrades. “Suffering no longer locked us up in the prison house of self-pity,” he said, standing in front of the projector. “It brought us into what Albert Schweitzer calls the ‘fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain.'” Then, I would switch off the projector and turn all of the room lights on again. The show was over.
The POW images still haunt me today, more than fifty years after the fact. Shortly after my mother died, I helped my father move into a smaller house and that was when I rediscovered the 35mm slides. They were in a brown box marked “POW Lecture”, almost exactly as I remembered them. It would take another week before I could bring myself to look through them, one by one, in an old-fashioned Bell & Howell viewfinder, confirming the fact that they were real enough, not just the exaggeration of a young boy’s macabre imagination.
• • •
This is the fifth in a series of “discoveries” about
my father’s extraordinary life. See also:
#1 Reconstructing My Father’s Plane Crash, 1936
#2 Comrades of Night: River Kwai, 1943
#3 Landscape & Trauma: Glen Coe
Thank you so much for sending me the write-up of your father’s war survival.
I look forward to reading it exclusively. Your email came today just as my husband and I arrived in Atlantic Beach, FL to with our youngest son and family for Christmas. I told Jim yesterday (before your email) that next in the new year, I would return to researching and writing the bio on Ernest Gordon as my own memoir, From Berlin to Hollywood and Beyond, is now in the hands of Christian Faith Publishing and gives me time for new projects.
May you have a fine Christmas with loved ones, and I look forward to hearing from you in the new year.
57 N. Tulane St.
Princeton, NJ. 08542
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Alastair, Thanks for sharing this account of your father’s slide show and your recollection of these events from a child’s perspective. It seems to me that the presentation of the slides and your father’s accompanying commentary were, as you alluded to, a way of your father forming a coherent narrative of his POW experiences. Perhaps they also served as the necessary healing prelude for him to write his book as a witness and survivor of all that he encountered there. In appreciation- James
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Thankks great blog post
I’m sorry your father exposed you to those slides when you were eight, Alastair. But thank you for spreading the word about your father’s amazing story. I met him as a high school senior in Chattanooga, where he gave a talk. He was one of the reasons I accepted Princeton’s offer of admission. He was unfailingly kind to me, making me feel welcome on campus. Several times, I stopped by his office in the Chapel to chat. He invited me to your home, and welcomed me to a monthly play-reading group. We stayed in touch in later years. I enjoyed introducing my daughter to him and your mother when she was in college.