Summary: Ernest Gordon’s “Miracle on the River Kwai” tells the extraordinary story of survival in the Prisoner of War camps.


I am indebted to Philip Yancey’s book “Rumours of another World for first bringing this awesome story to my attention and for his insights and revelations to us today.

I guess most of us here today would have heard of or even seen the film “Bridge over the River Kwai”. The film portrayed the brutal treatment of Prisoners of Wars forced by the Japanese to construct a railway line through the Thai jungle.

Ernest Gordon’s autobiography called “Miracle on the River Kwai” tells an extraordinary tale of survival in the prison camps. Even the title of his book suggests a story that has not been told.


Ernest Gordon was a British Army officer captured at sea by the Japanese at the age of twenty-four. Gordon was sent to work on the Burma-Siam railway line that the Japanese were constructing though the dense Thai jungle for possible use in an invasion of India. For labour, they conscripted prisoners of war they had captured from occupied countries in Asia and from the British Army itself. Against international law, the Japanese forced even officers to work at manual labour, and each day Gordon would join a work detail of thousands of prisoners who hacked their way through the jungle and built up a track bed through low-lying swamp land.

Naked except for loincloths, the men worked in 120-degree heat, their bodies stung by insects, their bare feet cut and bruised by sharp stones. Death was commonplace. If a prisoner appeared to be lagging, a Japanese guard would beat him to death, bayonet him, or decapitate him in full view of the other prisoners. Many more men simply dropped dead from exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease. Under these severe conditions, with such inadequate care for prisoners, 80.000 men ultimately died building the railway, 393 fatalities for every mile of track.


For most of the war, the law of the jungle had ruled in the prison camp. As starvation, exhaustion and disease took an ever-increasing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived became poisoned by selfishness, hate and fear. We were slipping rapidly down the slope of degradation. Before the patterns of army life had sustained us. We had still shown some consideration for each other. Now that was all swept away. Existence had become so miserable, the odds so heavy against survival, that, to most of the prisoners, nothing mattered except to survive. We lived by the law of the jungle ~ the law of the survival of the fittest. It was a case of “I look out for myself and to hell with everyone else”.

For most of us, little acts of meanness, suspicion and favouritism permeated our daily lives. In the food line, prisoners fought over the few scraps of vegetables or grains of rice floating in the greasy broth. Officers refused to share any of their special rations. Theft was common in the barracks. Men lived like animals and hate was the main motivation to stay alive.

We had no church, no chaplain, no services. We were forsaken men ~ forsaken by our friends, our families, by our Government. Now even God seemed to have left us.


But something was astir in the prison camp, something that Gordon would call “Miracle on the River Kwai”. Stories began to circulate around the camp, stories of self-sacrifice, heroism, faith and love. It was the custom among the Argyll’s for every man to have a “mucker” ~ that is, a pal or friend with whom he shared or “mucked in” everything he had. An Argyll called Angus had a mucker who became very ill. It seemed pretty certain to everyone that he was going to die. Certain, that is, to everyone but Angus. When someone stole his mucker’s blanket Angus gave him his own. Every mealtime Angus would draw his ration only to give them to his friend. Perhaps you can guess the end of the story. The mucker got better. But Angus collapsed, and died caused by starvation and exhaustion. All for his friend. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. The story of Angus’s sacrifice spread through the camp firing the imagination of everyone. He had given a shining example of the way we ought to live.

Another event shook the prisoners. Japanese guards carefully counted tools at the end of day’s work, and one day the guard shouted that a shovel was missing. He walked up and down the ranks demanding to know who had stolen it. When no one confessed, he screamed, “All die! All die!” and raised his rifle to fire at the first man in the line. At that instant a man stepped forward, stood at attention, and said, “I did it.”

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