When Ernest Gordon lay ill in a prison camp in Thailand, his fellow patients in the camp’s hospital — the Death House, they called it, since it “had long since given up any pretense of being a place to shelter the sick” — called the priest who gave last rites “the Angel of Death.” Gordon was indifferent to priests, but death swarmed his thoughts like flies. “Death called to us from every direction,” he later wrote. “It was in the air we breathed — it was the chief topic of our conversation.”
Gordon’s captors forced the men in his camp, prisoners of war during World War II, to build a rail track through the jungle and across the river Kwai — later the subject of a famous 1957 film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. The film got the story so wrong, Gordon felt, that he wrote a memoir to correct the record. His memoir also tells the story of how an atheist became a Presbyterian minister — and, in time, the dean of the Chapel at Princeton University.
An officer in a Scottish battalion, Gordon worked as a yacht skipper before his country called him to war in 1939. Three years later, he was digging and hammering with his fellow prisoners. The film depicts the prisoners as ambitious workers, keen to show British greatness, “even in captivity,” to the Japanese. “This was an entertaining story,” Gordon wrote. “But … in justice to these men — living and dead — who worked on that bridge, I must make it clear that we never did so willingly. We worked at bayonet point and under the bamboo lash, taking any risk to sabotage the operation whenever the opportunity arose.”
Hunger and disease abounded. Fear, hatred, and bitterness made the prisoners selfish: They stole from each other and lived a creed of each man for himself. Eventually, Gordon found himself in the Death House, immobile from dysentery and malaria. “Dying was easy,” he wrote. “When our desires are thwarted and life becomes too much for us, it is easy to reject life and the pain it brings, easier to die than to live.” But this is where his life began to turn.
Gordon disliked the religiosity he’d seen growing up, which seemed to him to stress a wrathful God and a pious removal from the world. But this new habit of caring for one’s brother, he thought, was worth exploring philosophically.
First, a friend built him a little hut to get him away from the smells of the Death House. The doctors let him move there so he could die in peace. Then his friend brought a stranger, a gentle young man who was a gardener back home, to give the dying man “a bit of help until you get on your feet properly again.” This surprised Gordon: Nobody volunteered to help the sick.
While the gardener tended to him, other prisoners also started to risk their resources and their lives in foolish acts of selflessness. A man died of starvation after giving all his food to his sick friend. When an equipment count came up one shovel short and a guard vowed to kill every man in a labor gang unless the thief came forward to be executed, a man said, coolly, “I did it.” The guard executed him; a recount showed the shovel wasn’t missing after all.
Brotherhood was infectious: The prisoners started to pool resources to help the sick. Then an Australian prisoner asked Gordon to lead a Bible discussion group, simply because he’d been to university. (“But I must say one word. The lads won’t stand for any Sunday School stuff. What they want is the real ‘dingo.’”) Gordon disliked the religiosity he’d seen growing up, which seemed to him to stress a wrathful God and a pious removal from the world. But this new habit of caring for one’s brother, he thought, was worth exploring philosophically. He accepted.
Years later, as a Presbyterian chaplain at the University, a position he took in 1954, he explained that what he learned was simple — misery loves company, yes, but equally true, though harder to live by, is that misery’s company is love: “God was in our midst, suffering with us.”