1542) The Missing Shovel

Ernest Gordon as a POW.  At the end of the war, the six foot Gordon weighed less than 100 pounds.

Gordon (1916-2002) and Takashi Nagase (1918-2011), one of his guards in the Japanese camp.


     Ernest Gordon was a Scottish POW in World War II.  He wrote Miracle on the River Kwai to tell the story of his experiences at the hands of the Japanese as he and his fellow soldiers were force to work on the Burma-Siam Railway (the story behind the 1957 movie The Bridge On the River Kwai).

     The cost to construct the Burma-Siam railway was astronomical.  There were 393 fatalities for each mile of track laid, as prisoners labored under inhumane conditions.  Oppressive heat, tropical diseases, stinging insects, and inadequate food, clothing, and shelter exposed workers to the harsh elements of the Thai jungle.  Many succumbed to the brutal environment.  Others, suspected of lagging, were bayoneted or decapitated by sadistic guards.
    Like frightened, cornered animals, the men adopted an extreme survival mentality.  Prisoner on prisoner crime was rampant.  Men were motivated primarily by fear and hate.  Gordon describes their descent into hell:
As conditions steadily worsened, as starvation, exhaustion and disease took an ever-growing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived was increasingly poisoned by selfishness, hatred, and fear.  We were slipping rapidly down the scale of degradation.  We lived by the rule of the jungle; survival of the fittest.  It was a case of “I look out for myself and to hell with everyone else.”  The weak were trampled underfoot, the sick ignored or resented, the dead forgotten.  When a man lay dying, we had no word of mercy.  When he cried for our help, we averted our heads.  We had long since resigned ourselves to being derelicts.  We were forsaken men, and now, even God had left us.  Hate, for some, was the only motivation for living.  We hated the Japanese.  We would willingly have torn them limb from limb, flesh from flesh, had they fallen into our hands.
     Then one day, a shovel changed everything.  Gordon writes:

At the end of each day the tools were collected from the work party.  On one occasion a Japanese guard shouted that a shovel was missing and demanded to know which man had taken it.  He began to rant and rave, working himself up into a paranoid fury and ordered whoever was guilty to step forward.  No one moved.  “All die!  All die!” he shrieked, cocking and aiming his rifle at the prisoners.  At that moment one man stepped forward.  The guard clubbed him to death with his rifle while he stood silently to attention.  When they returned to the camp, the tools were counted again and no shovel was missing.

     Word of this spread like wildfire through the whole camp.  An innocent man had been willing to die to save the others.  This one man’s selfless sacrifice revolutionized the camp’s atmosphere.  Many sought out answers about how to prepare for death and be ready to meet God.  Ernest Gordon became the unofficial camp chaplain.  A small church was erected and prayer was held nightly.  “Faith,” Gordon said, “thrives when there is no hope but God.” God did not disappoint. 

     The men began to treat each other like brothers, with care and kindness.  Gordon describes the effect:

Death was still with us, but we were slowing being freed from its destructive grip.  We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between forces that made for life and those that made for death.  Selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy, greed, self-intelligence, laziness, and pride were anti-life.  Love, heroism, self-sacrifice, sympathy, mercy, integrity and creative faith, were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in the truest sense.  These were gifts of God to men.  There was still hatred, but there was also love.  There was death, but there was also life.  God had not left us.  He was with us, calling us to live the divine life in fellowship.
     A ‘Jungle University’ sprung up.  Prisoners of different backgrounds taught classes.  Artist made materials and mounted an exhibition of their work.  Musicians crafted instruments and held recitals.  Gardeners tended beds of medicinal plants.  Prisoner on prisoner crime dropped dramatically.  So complete was the transformation in some of the men that upon liberation they extended kindness, not revenge, toward to their former captors.
     When the victorious Allies swept in, the skeletal survivors lined up in front of their captors.  Instead of attacking their captors they said:  “No more hatred.  No more killing.  Now what we need is forgiveness.’”  Sacrificial love has transforming power.
     The impact of the unnamed man’s sacrifice on the camp is a snapshot of the power of Christ’s death to transform lives.  It changes everything.  We can focus on eternal realities in spite of horrific, present-tense circumstances.  Neither their status as prisoners nor their captors’ attitude toward them changed, but the men were no longer the same.  Salvation in Christ offers to all the same opportunity.  ‘In the world, but not of it,’ we may rise victorious over the direst of circumstances.

     After the war, Ernest became a Presbyterian pastor.  He eventually moved to the United States where he became the dean of the chapel at Princeton University.

John 15:13  —  (Jesus said), “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends.”
Psalm 37:27  —  Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever.
Romans 5:17-19  —  For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.  Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.  For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
Lord, teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not count the cost,
to fight and not heed the wounds,
to toil and not seek for rest,
to labor and not look for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.
–Prayer of St. Ignatius