Tuesday, January 20, 2009

19. Ministry

Title page of Frank's wartime Dutch Bible
Image Source: Frank Samethini Collection

He came from a little town in Holland where people lived a simple life, and where some had never seen the sea. Yes, that was true, there were people in that Low Country town in Holland, which for a great part has been virtually wrested from the sea, as anybody knows, who had never seen the sea! His parents, who owned a bookshop, had never bothered to take him anywhere else than to the usual places such as school, church and market. Already in his early teens he had to help out in the shop on busy days, specially on Saturdays. On Sunday nobody went anywhere but to church, for they were God-fearing people there in that little town. So he never left his home town. But he was fond of reading and had traveled the world through his books. The sea had always fascinated him. Had it not played a major part in the history of Holland? Borne the great admirals to victorious battles with England and Spain, carried to new countries the famous Dutch explorers whose names had been given to islands, mountains and seas? That immense expanse of water covering the world from pole to pole had intrigued him to no end. He would repeat to himself names like "At-lan-tic", "Pac-if-ic", "Carib-bean", the sounds suggesting adventure, bravery and bold escapes.

There came the time when he was of age, when he broke with his father's wishes to take over the shop. He left his home town, the girl next door and family and friends, to join the navy and, as the saying goes, see the world. People found it odd that this boy should have this hankering for the sea. None of his forebears had, but to his greatly embarrassed parents they said that one never knew, really - perhaps one day their son would return a naval officer. One day they would all be proud of him. Naturally none of them believed this would happen, for they had only faith in what they saw growing on the land, what they could feel with their hands. Simple, hard working people who went to church regularly but could not believe in miracles anymore.

And so he saw his precious sea, all of it. And after a time he had had enough, became homesick, loathing all that water separating him from his girl, to whom he wrote long letters full of remorse and longing. But he had committed himself by signing a paper which bound him for one more year. Then one day the Dutch warship was torpedoed and sunk. He was picked up a prisoner of war. Now he is here with us in Yokkaichi - and he is dying. [1]

He should never have gone to sea. He should have stayed home where he belonged in the shop and married the girl next door. Probably the Germans would have got him too, but at least he would first have had the happy years with people he liked and knew, there in that small town behind the great dikes, where some had never seen the sea. He wouldn't have been with us then, not with the gang doing that repair job on the top floor of the factory, when he stumbled and fell, all the way down the deep funnel.

It is an internal hemorrhage, a hopeless thing. He knows that he is dying but - game! Man, is he game! Lying there with unwavering eyes staring at something distant, calmly waiting for the final plunge into darkness. If only he would be unconscious, in a coma for instance, until it's over. But no, terribly awake he is, so much alive lying on his bed there before me. The fingers of his hand move feebly, the hand lying still on his chest which is quietly rising and falling with his breathing, his regular, absurdly normal breathing. He will continue to inhale and exhale air, filling his lungs with life-bringing oxygen, ridding his body of waste, according to a marvelous respiratory system which had started at the moment of his birth - until all his blood has finally flown away into that cavity deep inside his body. His lips are white but otherwise I cannot note anything different about his face than, say, that man there a couple of beds further on who has a touch of the flu, no more. This boy seems normal, nothing like those I saw die in Thailand, men who were gravely ill, whose wasted bodies left no room for hope. But this boy was never sick in his life. I notice dandruff on his blond hair beside his ear and softly brush it off with my hand. Is it a trick of light and shadow, or do I see a smile pass fleetingly at the corners of his mouth? He is so young, and was always so confident that he would return home, said that he had never doubted going back to that little bookshop on the corner of the street where he lived. Why must he die? He has so much to go home to. Why not that man there, who has lost his eyesight, and who has said he wants to be dead?

It's not fair. I can't stand it anymore. Angrily I walk away from him in the frustration of utter helplessness when one cannot understand nor accept. I walk away from him to my bunk - where I can watch people who are not dying, watch a hand lazily scratching a stomach, watch someone's eyes following every move made by a man who is eating a snack, hear a chuckle or a snarl breaking the drowsy silence of the afternoon - to where life is.

Shortly before the evening meal the Dutch C.O. enters to say that he has died peacefully, with one last request: a Christian funeral service. Though strictly forbidden by Handlebar, it is still the last wish of a dying comrade, is it not? At that moment the man next to me gets up to reach for his tobacco and bumps his shoulder against the rafter on which my bible lies. It drops into my lap, and I hear my voice saying that since I have a bible, I am willing to offer my service.

We assemble at seven o'clock in the bathroom. At this hour the Nips are feeding and there will not be one in sight for about fifteen minutes. Besides, the bath shed is the coldest place in camp and they hate cold. Also, Handlebar, in a rage of fury, is supposed to have said at one time that the worst thing to watch would be a naked prisoner of war. Perhaps one more reason why we never see a Nip in the bathroom.

Table of contents
Frank's notes on the Old Testament at left
Image Source: Frank Samethini Collection

"The Lord is my shepherd..."
Psalm 23 in Frank's Bible.
Image Source: Frank Samethini Collection

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." I have chosen this psalm and follow with a few words about how young he still was, and liked by one and all. Now and then a water drop falls from my wet hair onto my hand holding the Book. I took a shower just before mealtime to cleanse myself before performing this important task for a dead man. I finish up with Our Father, which is twice interrupted by a hissed "Hurry up, for Christ's sake!" from the door where we have put a guard. The coffin is brought back to the hospital before we return to eat our food.

How on earth could I have proposed to hold the service? I have never been much of a church-goer. Should I have asked Hendrik in the next bay, who probably would know more about this sort of thing? He looks it, somehow. I find him on his bed, smoking that big Dunhill pipe, from which he has said he will never be separated, not for all the sweet potatoes in Japan.

"What makes you think I'd be willing to hold the service?" he asks.

"Well, you know more about it than I, don't you?"

"Know about what? Why this boy died? All the bibles in the world couldn't explain that, so it doesn't matter whether I know more about the Scriptures than you do. No, my friend, I'd rather not get mixed up with it. I might just say too much."

Today I have been summoned to our Dutch camp commander, and I am asked to hold divine service every Sunday! The American C.O. suggests to do the same for the English speaking group.

Strange to say is that I don't mind that. If anyone had wondered if I would ever lead men in worship service, a week or so ago I would have called him a fool. Now that it has become a duty, I am rather pleased with it. I have something to prepare, to think about, even if it is only a simple affair of ten minutes or so. No hymns, of course, for that would give us away and the Japs would lose no time in putting an end to the forbidden worship. There are quite a few gathered for the first "church service." Is it only curiosity or is there still room for another kind of hunger than that overpowering one for food?

After an opening prayer I offer something on "more light in the darkness" and a chance to survive with God's help to come home. Cliches, but I've got them interested. I read even encouragement in their eyes. Suddenly I am keenly aware of doing something good for friends, for comrades-in-misery, and who wouldn't like that? Later, returning to my bunk, I find that somebody has stolen my dinner. My mess tin is licked clean. The men come to my rescue with a spoonful each, but my thoughts are far from religious.

The following morning we are lined up for inspection by the director of the blast furnace company, a civilian wearing thick spectacles and accompanied by a big German shepherd, which sniffs at our legs and growls. Apparently it does not like prisoners of war. After shouting a belated welcome to Nippon and an order for us to work hard, we are dismissed. The dog has run off and is nowhere to be seen. As a matter of fact, no one will ever see it again. Presently we are called back in line and subjected to an intensive search. The dog has disappeared without leaving a trace. Laughingly one of us asks the director if we are suspected of having hidden the dog in our pockets.

The man is not amused and flies off in an un-directorlike rage of spitting and shin-kicking, forcibly stopped by our guards, who have strict orders to halt any attempt at punishment by a member of the civilian population. Angrily shouting abuse at us and the guards, the boss gets into his coke-powered automobile and races off into the village.

Late at night, after ensuring that nothing Japanese is nearby, a couple of Chinese POWs call us to their eating nook, an old, disused Bessemer converter. Would the Dutchies like some fresh cooked meat? What do they think we are, idiots? Of course the Dutchies like fresh cooked meat. I throw in my commission from tonight's trading and we all enjoy a delicious meal of roasted sweet potatoes and, what is it, beef, pork? It has a sweet but not unpleasant taste. After dinner the Chinese friends explain that it is "woof-woof, the dilectol's doggie." Contentedly picking our teeth, we watch the seething hot stream of copper slag creeping down the channel to the basin below, where an undiscernable burlap covered heap is submerged and obliterated in a second. Copper slag is handy for cooking as well as for destroying evidence. A puff of smoke is all there is left. Alas, our enfeebled stomachs cannot digest so much animal fat, as a result of which we have to visit the latrines frequently. Anyone making the trip more than once is slapped in the face by a Nip who must have put two and two together. But the slapping is done only half-heartedly, for the director is not very popular.

Another group of prisoners of war has arrived in our midst, bringing the sad news of the sinking of transports by American torpedoes. It is disclosed that among the drowned comrades there is one called Bobby, "the gorgeousest phony broad this side of Suez," who had gone down with twenty frocks in his rucksacks. That can only be the "incomparable Bobby" who so well portrayed "women", the throb of many men's dreams in those days of the great concerts in Chungkai. Poor Bobby.

There is one man among a group who had survived a torpedo attack, nicknamed "Muscleman," a former professional boxer. He has a gruesome story to tell about how he and his friends had leaped overboard the moment the torpedo struck. How incredibly fortunate they were to land in the water alongside an unoccupied raft. With hands and feet paddling they had put as much distance as possible between themselves and the rapidly sinking vessel. Later they had clambered onto the raft to watch the ship going down. Other men had not been so lucky and had been sucked into the still-turning propellers, painting the blades crimson with their blood. Then faces, black with the oil-saturated seawater, had appeared near their raft, outstretched hands clawing onto its sides. More and more, until the raft began to sink from the overload. Muscleman had made a quick decision. It took him and his mates quite a while to push the pleading faces away, to smack their fists on the clinging fingers, before the raft had become free of the overload. There is nothing we can say. Men in fear of death become like that. But there is an overtone, ever so small but detectable, of relish in the way he tells his story, that brands him with a certain quality. We wonder where his friends are. Here he has none.

We have reached the end of November, 1944. Time passes in Yokkaichi without anything important happening to mark the days. I've earned myself a nickname, "the Swearing Minister." Handlebar has suddenly lifted the ban on Christian worship - as long as it is done in an orderly way, he has added, in his usual puzzling manner. And so we had a regular Sunday worship of twenty minutes or so, for we thought it wiser not to stretch our luck. But my food had been eaten again, so one Sunday evening I quickly returned, after the opening prayer, to our bay - and caught him in the act of eating my dinner! Forgetting that only a moment ago I had led the congregation in worship, I smacked my fist on his nose, calling him names in rather un-ministerial language. He slumped backwards against the wall, blood trickling from his nose onto the large front teeth, and from there dripping down his chin into the food in the mess tin which he held stiffly against his stomach. He whimpered with a high pitched sound, and that made the resemblance with a cornered rat so vivid that my anger changed into utter disgust. I left him where he sat and went down the ladder. Roel stood in the passageway.

"Well, I'll be!" he said, pointing upwards. Mouth and chin red with blood, he had begun eating again, flashing us a look of indescribable hatred.

That evening I put in a request to be relieved from my duties as a minister.

"Why?" asked the C.O. "Because you let fly at that scum who ate your food, and lost your head? Don't be silly. You're human, you know. Good grief, anyone in a case like this would have socked him one! Take your dinner to the bathroom next time and please go on with it."

One evening every one of us is issued with a box of Red Cross gifts from the U.S.A., containing such refined luxuries as powdered milk, corned beef and other delicacies, plus six packages of American cigarettes. It is overwhelming! I see some men take out their cans one by one, only to put them back in the box again, their faces lit with pure rapture. Others begin slowly and with concentration, bobbing their bony Adam's apples with every bite, nibbling, licking, munching and swallowing, now and then blowing an audible sigh of utter enjoyment over milling, fat-moistened lips. Almost at once a market in Red Cross goods is set up for those who wish to swap. Throughout the evening until deep in the night we can hear the calling of the latest quotations: "One pork, two raisins and coffee," for example, meaning that for one tin of pork (Spam), two packets of raisins and one tin of instant coffee can be bought. The hardest currency is cigarettes. Nonsmokers will be making a fortune, is the general prediction.

There is suddenly a great commotion started off by that pest "Muscleman," the ex-boxer, who is in the act of collecting his confounded "interest." This man had lent money before the capitulation of Manila. His conditions were curious, the principal being payable in U.S. Dollars after the war. He had only lent money to those who were physically no match for him. Whenever he thought a debtor had enough money or goods to pay the accrued interest, and the man refused to do so, he would go to his debtor with obvious relish, for our friend is besides a pugilist also a sadist. The spectacle of what he calls a "reminder" had us several times before thoroughly disgusted, and gradually a commonly felt repugnance against the lout has built itself up amongst us. Now, in the midst of the good-naturedly bargaining throng, he demands immediate payment in Red Cross goods from one of his debtors who has refused, hanging on to his treasure for dear life. Muscleman decides to apply force, and in doing so he makes a great mistake. Everybody was in such a happy mood that no one, particularly not Muscleman, can be tolerated to mar the general feeling of goodness. No one can bear to witness one more of his detestable performances. In fact, they are so sick of him that the pent-up loathing has reached its flash point. So when he starts to knock this man about, he his jumped on from all sides, thrown down and beaten senseless. He is carried to his place and laid down on his own Red Cross parcels. Justice in its rawest form, but quick and adequate. A moment later the din is on again as if nothing has happened. Amazing! After all the hunger we have been subjected to, you would have expected to see everyone enjoying good food, not doing business with it. Would it be the old thing popping up again - grab, grab yourself some more, get that sweet old feeling again?

There is a lot of running to the latrines that night, except for those who have eaten in moderation or have been too busy with trading to eat too much.

The following morning a number of men are admitted to hospital with stomach complaints, and when we return from work we find the market position drastically reversed. The meats and cheese and chocolate bars are too rich for our digestive systems as yet. Food items of a light caliber, such as raisins, salmon and milk powder, better suited to our stomachs, are now on top of the list, creating a catastrophic face-about quotation of "three pork, one raisin" or "three cheese, one salmon," which is very bad for those who have bought themselves good stocks of pork and cheese with an eye on the ultimate cigarette barter. This was, and is, the final goal of all trading. Rather plenty of smokes than enough food, such is the state of addiction to nicotine for many of our men. Is it not so at chow time that one can always buy an extra half bowl of barley for one cigarette, or even two stubs if they are not too short? There is always a "smoky" doing the rounds at dinner time. Most of us have lost a lot of weight, but the "smokies" are walking skeletons.

December 1944 has just started when Handlebar has a small tree brought in for Christmas, undoubtedly acting under instructions, for he is just not the type for doing that on his own.

Yesterday we heard of yet another sinking of ships carrying prisoners of war to Japan. The man with the pipe comes along.

"Frank, what are you going to say to them now on Sunday?"

"Let me answer your question with another, Hendrik. What would you say?" (Oh, how well I know this man).

"I don't believe in worship."

"Why not?"

"I've come to the conclusion that our life is governed by the laws of nature, the law of averages, fortune, fate, whatever. God is merely another name for nature, a symbol for that part of the world's population that needs a God to live by, to worship, to pray to or to blame for their shortcomings. A symbol of tradition in mystical thinking, no more. I say that all one needs in life is a certain amount of common sense and luck. Hasn't Nietsche explained it clearly in his doctrine of the eternal recurrence of the same events? Why do you think this war was started? Because it is needed to stabilise the number of people inhabiting this planet, so there will not be too many! Lots of people are killed by war, epidemic or earthquake or other disaster. One of the great laws of nature. Balancing the multitudes through catastrophes is just as important as the law of reproduction."

"You've got it all worked out, haven't you?"

"Yes. If by any chance a man, woman or child survives an act of human violence or a natural calamity, it can only be attributed to good fortune or good reckoning, horse sense, if you like. The only scientifically just explanation, and therefore the only acceptable."

"Are you quite finished?"

"Yes, and I'd rather keep my mouth shut than tell a pack of lies!"

"Since when have you been harbouring these convictions?"

"I've thought it all over and come to believe that only good planning, plus a certain amount of luck, or useful coincidence, if you like, determines one's destiny. Nietsche was no fool, you know."

"And where has the great Nietsche come to with his brilliant theory? Where did he land with his bold conception of the superman who by sheer willpower may achieve the supremacy of the world? He died an incurable lunatic. And what is happening to his own people with their doctrine of German supremacy? What, for that matter, has remained of the civilisations of the past, proclaiming themselves as the Herrenvolk, the super race? Where are the Persian, Mongolian, Egyptian and Roman hordes of world conquerors? They all had only faith in their armour, in force, in calculations of the human mind. Where are their empires now?"

I am glad that I have been asked to perform our church services, as short and perhaps inadequate as they may be, for this man would have been a menace to the tranquility of our minds. A man needs to remain sane and balanced, for these are the days of want, of anguish, when a man needs something to hang on to, to believe in something whole and good.

Have we come to believe that? As if in answer to my unspoken thoughts I am called on with the request to take up the question of why fellow prisoners, who had survived Thailand and Burma, had to die at the hands of our Allies in the recent torpedo attacks. I promise to speak on that subject this coming Sunday. There is a look of amusement and pity in Hendrik's eyes, surveying me over his dubious-smelling pipe, before turning about and leaving me alone with my problem.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Harmony of the Four Gospels
A theology book belonging to Frank during his years in captivity
Image Source: Frank Samethini Collection

The Gospel of John (from Jesus of Nazareth)
Image Source: Frank Samethini Collection

Sunday arrives. All around me are their eyes, more than I ever saw on any other Sunday. Probably the news got around that the Swearing Minister is going to be put up to the wall.

"The question has arisen as to why our men had to die at the hands of our Allies while having been allowed to stay alive in Thailand and Burma. We can't explain this with a cut and dried answer, but at least we can offer a thought, a deliberation, though chances are that, should a similar mishap be about to happen to ourselves, we would probably be screaming, 'Why us, why us?' Why had these men to perish by submarine action? By the same token, we could ask why children, infants, innocent people have to die in a war, or by accident or by the hands of a criminal. Biologically and technically their deaths are explainable, for one thing is the result of another. But that is not our question; we're not investigating the technical reasons. We wish to know why God allowed them to expire. Our question is related to religion, faith, so we should stay within the realm of that. Well now, could any one of us supply the answer? Of course not, because if we could explain God we would not need Him, would we? We all would be little gods ourselves, and it hardly needs explanation that we are not! But perhaps we could find something to hold on to if we stick to the Bible."

Here I have to stop a moment to look at my notes, while softly praying to myself, "God, help me!"

"The Bible says that our lives are in God's hands, but it is also written that this doesn't mean that we are free to disregard actions which may cause us harm or even death. We cannot ignore the common laws of nature, those of gravity and velocity, to mention a couple. If we jump out of a window, we break our neck. If we drive too fast, we may get killed. As someone has said, we may expect miracles from God, but no nonsense. It is all very simple. If we commit one bad thing, another bad thing may result from that. If we make war, a torpedo may send our comrades to their death, whether they got through Thailand or not. If this world is at war, if it is made compulsory to kill a fellow man, anything goes and terrible things will happen to friend and foe. But why not only to the aggressor? Why should people who did not go to war suffer and perish too? Well, if a rifle is fired, the bullet will go its way. If a bomb is released, it will fall on its target. So if a torpedo is fired, it will propel itself to the ship. Each time these lifeless instruments of war follow a law of nature: pressure, velocity, gravity, explosion. They are not the bad things. They are dead things simply complying the laws of physics.

"The bad one is the mind which pulls the trigger, pushes the button. Now then, if our wish would be granted, if disaster should come to the aggressor only, then that would mean that a supernatural force would have to stop these missiles from going their way. The great laws of nature would have to be defied! Defending ourselves against an enemy would not be necessary. The bad mind, filled with greed, hatred, jealousy or whatever makes it bad, could not cause us harm, could not achieve its malicious end. Then there would be no point in being bad, and the supreme condition God has imposed upon Himself - that man should be free to choose between good and evil - would be without meaning! Oh, wouldn't it be a jolly good old world, no more baddies, a real paradise! Yes, it would be, but not because of man himself, but because God made it so - which is precisely not what God wants. We know that from the Bible. Man himself should make this world better. Man himself should not wish to be bad, should not want that which is not his - which is the answer to our problems. How long will this planet have to spin around its sun before "Thou shalt not covet!" has become an international way of life, thus obliterating war?

"Perhaps Bonaparte had found the practical answer when he said that one should make his defenses so frightfully strong that his neighbor will have second thoughts before planning to attack, for fear of causing irreparable harm to himself. Let us not say so often, 'Why this, why that," but let us be still and thankful for our good fortune at being saved so far, with possibly a chance to come home when it's all over. As long as the world will not follow the Divine command to love our neighbors as ourselves, it will not understand God."

Hendrik's mouth clamps over his pipe, his eyes regarding me with a look of mild surprise. Then, taking out his pipe, he says, "Not bad for a beginner."

"Is that a compliment?"

"Maybe, but what would you say to a man who, home after the war, finds his wife killed, his daughter raped by the enemy? What would you say to a mother witnessing her child being put to death by the enemy? Would you say that God loves them? That Jesus loves them? Perhaps the word 'love' in the Bible has been misinterpreted? Should it be taken as 'watching you?' "

"Frankly, I don't know, but perhaps we shouldn't used the human concept of 'love' as the measure for the Divine, universal meaning of it. Remember that faith in God is a gift, given by grace, not attainable through reasoning. I think that there's a lot in what Cowper said: 'Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much. Wisdom is humble that he knows no more!' Good night to you, sir."

I am tired of this man's endless arguing.


[1] His name was Paulus Appel, Seaman 1st Class, Royal Netherlands Navy. Born 1917 in Den Bosch, Holland. He is listed as Appel, P.P.M. on this Dutch POW death list. See also the American source Known Deceased at Yokkaichi #5-B.

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