In a vast military field hospital on the outskirts of Rangoon Burma, survivors of the infamous Siam-Burma railway were being treated for wounds and tropical diseases. The war had ended on August 15th 1945, it was now late September, ex Japanese prisoner of war 26 year old private Joe Levy sat up in bed staring vacantly at the bandaged stump that was his right hand mutilated by brutal Japanese guards to such an extent that amputation had been the only answer.
Excitement ran high as the first airmails had arrived from the UK. Joe was abruptly alerted as his name was called. A nurse brought him over an airmail letter he smiled in anticipation as she asked “shall I undo the envelope for you?” Joe nodded his reply. The young nurse unsealed the envelope and handed it to Joe. Trying to hold the letter steady in his left hand, he was at first puzzled. He did not recognise the handwriting as he began to read the contents, suddenly it all became clear it was a letter from Hackney London written by the local Rabbi.
Dear Joe, I have been asked by your wife, Minnie to write this letter on her behalf, she is fit and well and ecstatic that you are alive and returning home. This will come as a shock, during your long years of absence without any news she believed you would never return. In her despair she turned to another for consolation and confesses to an affair with an American soldier. He has returned to the United States and she will never see him again. It is my duty to inform you that your wife has a one year old son, she prays that you will forgive her terrible mistake. She still loves you...the letter went on.
Sharp spasms of anger, pain and despair raced through his mind. Blinding tears of disbelief coursed freely down Joe`s hollow cheeks. “She still loves you” the words seemed to mock him as they burned into his brain. The young Jewish wife he worshipped, the one that he dreamed of so much, the one that he longed to hold in his arms again and whisper “Its all over darling, we can start life anew, away from the horrors of war.” The letter caused a severe shock to his system. In a sudden rage, he crushed the flimsy airmail in his left hand and hurled it to the floor. Joe gave a choking almost hysterical unreal laugh, burying his head deep in the pillow his body shook with uncontrollable sobbing. Staff nurse Katie Donald realised something was wrong, she knelt down beside the bed and gently moved over Joe`s right arm, the stump seemed grotesque, sticking out of the bed without a hand, she stroked the back of his dark hair “Bad news?” she murmured quietly, there was no answer, only muffled sobbing could be heard.
The nurse caught sight of the crumpled letter lying on the floor. Instinctively she reached out and picked it up and slipped it into the top pocket of her uniform, she decided to read it later and then when the time was right, return it to the soldier. Katie Donald knew only too well that medical staff must never get involved with their patients, somehow this case seemed different, she sat down beside Joe`s bed and tried to talk to him. The young soldier moved his head to one side, “Leave me alone, I`m alright” he muttered “I`ve been to hell and back” he started to sob again as he buried his head in the pillow. Feeling inadequate, Katie sighed and rose to her feet she would return later as the medical officer was due to conduct his morning rounds.
Ward D became a hive of activity as the medics dressed wounds and amputations, Captain Charles stopped at the bedside of Joe Levy, “Morning soldier” said the M.O. There was no reply, “know what`s troubling him nurse?” he asked. “Bad news from home sir, the first airmails arrived this morning.” The officer frowned “we`ll look at him later, lots of men are receiving bad news amongst the good, they must remember they are soldiers.” After the M.O.`s rounds were completed and relief nurses were on duty, staff nurse Katie had time to retire to the rest room for a few hours break. She kicked off her regulation black shoes with a sigh of relief and sat down to relax. She could not get the thought of the young soldier out of her mind.
Thoughtfully the nurse sipped her hot cup of tea, the letter she had picked up from the floor was still in her uniform pocket carefully she pulled it out and laid it on the small table in font of her. It crossed her mind that perhaps she was wrong to read someone else`s mail, but he had thrown it away in anger and despair, Katie read and re-read the contents of the letter. For a young woman of 24 years there was much to understand. The folly of war the horrors and terrors, loved ones being torn apart for years, then the peace followed by lives wrecked and the destruction of families. Katie gave a sigh, folded the letter, placed it back in her pocket, she would return it to Joe later in the day.
Back in ward D, Joe was lying on his back staring at the ceiling his aching brain was still trying to come to terms with the letter from home. He was an orphan without anyone, life had been tough as a kid in an East End orphanage, Joe remembered how dramatically things had changed from the moment he had met Minnie, they were both twenty years old and she was his first and only lover. They had married in the local registry office eight weeks before he had left on active service, she had promised to wait, however long, till the end of time! “Mug of char Joe?” It was Bill Hempton who was in the next bed to Joe. “Go on mate it will do you good” urged Bill “The nurse bought some round a minute ago so I took one for you.” Joe sat up on his bed. “Thanks Bill I`ll come over and get it” Bill grinned “It would help mate if you could.” Joe got up walked across and sat down on Bill`s bed. “We`re a bloody fine pair, me with no bleedin` right hand and you with only one leg.” Bill replied “It could be worse Joe at least we survived, although I don`t know what my wife`s gonna say when I turn up like this, reckon I ought to write and break the news before I get home, my little girl Shirley back home in Suffolk must be five years old now, wonder what she`ll think of her Dad with a wooden leg?” Joe remained quiet, gazing absentmindedly into his mug of tea. “Something wrong mate?” “Yeah” came the answer. “Had some bad news from home.” Bill Hempton was a sensible young man his simple reaction was “Bloody sorry to hear that mate but no doubt things will brighten up when we get home.” “Don`t know wether I`ll be going home now” came the reply. “Surely it can`t be that bad mate?” Joe stood up “Ta for the tea Bill, talk to you later on.” He returned to his bed, laid flat on his back, his mind spinning a thousand different thoughts. The evening meal came and went still Joe did not eat a thing. Katie Donald was concerned. On reflection she decided to leave things well alone. Perhaps the next day the young soldier might feel better, although it would be tough for her she would return the letter and talk to him about it.
By nine p.m. that night all the medication had been given out. At one end of the ward Katie was seated at a desk reading some medical reports. A number of patients who could dress themselves and were able to walk safely on their own had already left to visit friends in other parts of the hospital. Senior officers had decided that where possible it was ok for such patients to walk freely in the hospital grounds, however they had to report back to the night duty nurses by 11 p.m. There was no security on the front or rear gates of the hospital, if they wished patients could leave the grounds to walk in the colourful tropical gardens situated nearby.
“Ok to go for a walk, staff nurse?” Came a voice. Katie looked up from her desk in surprise to see Joe standing there, dressed in lightweight jungle green. “Yes it will be ok, hope you are feeling a bit better now?” Joe pulled out a packet of cigarettes. “Fancy one nurse?” He asked without answering her question. “No thanks Joe we are not allowed to smoke on duty, but I`ll give you a light though.” She lit a match and as Joe puffed the end of his fag glowed. The nurse studied Joe`s face for a brief moment he was a dark haired handsome young man, despite all of his sufferings he still maintained good looks and a warm smile.
“By the way I found your letter on the floor, I was going to give it back to you tomorrow, I am very sorry as to what`s happened.” In a flash came the answer. “Sorry, that seems a strange word to use. You`re a smashing nurse, one could easily fall in love with you.” “Love.” He repeated bitterly. “What`s the real meaning of love? My world has collapsed around me, I`m going for a walk.”
Katie gave an understanding smile. “Ok soldier, take care of yourself, I`ll see you later.” Joe strode from the ward out of the main hospital block and into the brilliant tropical moonlight of Rangoon. It was a warm sultry night, on his feet the socks and soft rubber shoes felt strangely comforting after rough years of walking barefoot. Steadily he strode towards the back entrance of the hospital. In a few minutes he reached the main wrought iron gates which were wide open. There was no one on duty. Joe passed an old English church as he headed in the direction of the tropical gardens. The church reminded him of England and home. Outside the entrance to the gardens the young soldier paused for a moment to extract another cigarette from a packet in his right hand top pocket. They were easier to reach for a man with only a left hand. There was no one in sight as with a furtive look around he squatted down to hold a box of matches between his knees. Skilfully he struck a match, lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply. He straightened up and strode on into the warm tropical night.
The ornate gates of the gardens glistened in the moonlight. For some unknown reason he felt the urge to keep on walking. He skirted the perimeter of the gardens, still there was nobody about. Shortly, it seemed he was following a narrow path which led into dense tropical undergrowth. The brilliant moonlight filtered through the trees, casting strange shadows and patterns which seemed to dance as he followed the trail. In the distance was the sound of rushing water. It was the river, without realising what he was doing Joe continued into the night, drawn like a magnet towards the sound of the water. As he drew closer the noise grew louder, suddenly the young British soldier emerged from the deep undergrowth into the full brilliance of the tropical moonlight.
There it was again, the vast river Kwai. Although he was now in Burma, the river was still imprinted firmly in his memory as he had known it for those grim years, deep in the fever-ridden jungles of Thailand. Mesmerised, Joe stared across at the jagged rocks jutting out from the rapids upstream leaving trails of bubbling white foam as the waters rushed south beyond the sweeping bend in the river. Still further north lay the giant curved wooden monster, the evil bridge at Tamajao, which had cost so many allied prisoners of war their lives.
His heart was pounding as he quickly slithered down the slimy, muddy bank to the waters edge. The roar of the fast flowing river grew louder his thoughts were chaotic. Totally unaware of the coldness of the water engulfing his feet, he held his right arm aloft. Silhouetted against the bright moonlight, the stump formed a grotesque outline. It had all been a bad dream. His hand was feeling good, everything was alright. Joe`s mind flashed back in time as he waded deep into the river.
He could see his mate Ed Warwick, tied hand and foot to a tree. Three brutal Japanese guards were beating the young prisoner with large sticks. Blood was running from a wound to his head, his body slumped unconscious against the ropes. Joe wondered if he was already dead, there was no way anyone could have helped. Escape through the jungle was hopeless.
Joe Levy looked up at the blazing tropical sun which suddenly vanished to become brilliant moonlight. He did not feel the numbness as the waters surged still deeper around him. He could hear the soft voice of his young wife whispering again those wonderful words of long ago, “Till the end of time my darling I will wait for you, I will love you always.”
As the water swirled round his neck, Joe didn`t feel anything, he was back home walking down Mare Street in Hackney. Running with her arms outstretched towards him he could see his pretty, dark-haired young wife. He reached out with fine young, strong hands to embrace her as the force of the river waters closed over him, sweeping his tormented body rapidly into midstream and down river...