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“God Will Know Who Is in the Right”

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River Kwai Bridge after Destruction

River Kwai Bridge After Destruction

The Real Story of the Bridge on the River Kwai

There was a real bridge over the river Kwai, and a real Burma Railway, built to large extent using Allied prisoners of war as slave labor.  Its purpose was to link Bangkok, Thailand, with Rangoon, Burma, paving the way for the Japanese conquest of India.  In so doing, the prisoners were starved, routinely beaten and abused, and in the case of one out of five, worked to death.

There was also a real British commander in charge of the men building the bridge at Tamarkan, Thailand.  He was not, however, the unbalanced collaborator portrayed in the 1957 movie.  Lt. Col. Philip Toosey was a decorated war hero whom his troops would credit with saving many of their lives by inserting himself between them and their Japanese captors and seeking an understanding with them.

Yet there is still more to the story.  Colonel Toosey dealt mainly with Sergeant Major Saitoh, second in command at the Tamarkan camp.  On one occasion, Saitoh had struck Toosey repeatedly in the mouth, but was not considered as brutal as some other guards.  A cavalryman by training, Saitoh obtained several horses, and offered to take British officers riding.

At long last, the Kwai bridge was destroyed by Allied bombs, and Japanese forces crushed.  At this juncture, Colonel Toosey approached Saitoh.  As described years later in Saitoh’s own words,

I was greatly shocked and indeed delighted when you came to shake me by the hand, as only the day before you were a prisoner . . . .  You exchanged friendly words with me and I discovered what a great man you were . . . .  You told me not to worry and that you would take care of everything.

Even after winning, you were not arrogant or proud.  You are the type of man who is a real bridge over the battlefield.

As he shook Saitoh’s hand, Colonel Toosey said to him, “You know, God will know who is in the right.”

While other guards were imprisoned or hanged as war criminals, Colonel Toosey refrained from pressing accusations against Saitoh.  Ever after, Saitoh considered that Toosey had saved his life.  With a deep sense of obligation, Saitoh corresponded with Toosey, and hoped to thank him in person some day.  Unfortunately, Saitoh was never able to visit him before Toosey’s death in 1975.

Later, however, Saitoh made a pilgrimage to Toosey’s gravesite, and met his son, Patrick.  As he wrote later,

I feel very fine because I finish my own strong duty.  But one thing I regret:  I could not visit Mr. Philip Toosey while he was alive.  He showed me what human being should be.  He changed the philosophy of my life.

But there remains a final cap to the story.  Saitoh died in 1990.  His widow contacted Sergeant Ginzo Sakano, a guard that had served with Saitoh, and had served five years for war crimes.  She warned him that he might not wish to attend Saito’s funeral.  In explaining the reason why, she revealed a secret her husband had kept for years:  Saitoh had become a Christian.

To the Japanese, you see, becoming a Christian is a denial of their ancient culture and an insult to their ancestors.  Saitoh would have been an outcast.

Sources:  “The True Story of the Bridge on the River Kwai,” a BBC and A&E Coproduction, 1997; see also “The Man Behind the Bridge” by Peter Davies; and andSecrets of the Dead:  Bridge on the River Kwai” (PBS).

Previously published in Divine Parodies & Holy Histories: with Selected Poems (2007) by Paul A. Hughes.

© 2003, 2007 Paul A. Hughes

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Written by biblequestion

December 4, 2010 at 12:27 AM

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