Last Man Out: Surviving The Burma-Thailand Death Railway: A Memoir, by H. Robert Charles
It is no exaggeration to say that the Japanese have not done a very good job at coming to terms with the horrors they inflicted on others in World War II, all while crying victim over being the only nation to be atomic bombed into pacifism. This book is part of a genre of books related to those who suffered the horrors of being prisoners of war under the tender hand of the Japanese  and it does not pull punches about the struggle faced by people to survive during the war and the repercussions of that suffering after the fighting ended. Of particular interest is the way that the author discusses his own struggle to deal with the trauma of war when there were few resources given to such survivors and not even much of a language with which to discuss the nightmares and hypervigilance that was associated with the experience, and also the way that the author praises a Dutch doctor from what is now Indonesia for the survival of so many captives in the face of starvation and terror. Intriguingly, and revealingly, the author relates that his own prior experience of abuse at the hand of a stepfather allowed him an advantage in dealing with abusive Japanese guards.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into 3 parts. The book begins with a foreword by James D. Hornfischer as well as a preface, acknowledgements, and a prologue in 1978 when the author committed to writing the memoir after a trip to a therapist. The first part of the book then looks at the experiences of the author at the Battle of Java Sea (1) and Sunda Strait (2) that led to his ship being sunk and he being captured by the Japanese that were then taking over the Dutch East Indies (3). Over the course of the experience he was shipped from one prison to another until he was assigned to Burma (8) and met a doctor without credentials (9) who realized a purpose for being there (10). The second part of the book then looks at the struggle to survive in captivity under starvation rations doing the work of building a railway and fighting against tropical diseases thanks to the doctor’s herbal knowledge (II). After that the book ends with the deliverance of the author from the jungles and eventually his rescue in Vietnam as well as the search for the doctor and the communication that led to a heartfelt reunion (III), after which the book ends with some appendices with various historical documents including the Americans interned with Dr. Hekking, along with a bibliography and index.
This book is a compelling look at the struggle of people to deal with the horrors of war. The author notes the very real consequences of America’s characteristic bias to prepare for war once we are already in them, something that has gone back for a long time, into colonial days for those men who are in harm’s way before America gets its act together. The author is bluntly honest about his experiences in prison and in the lengths which he and his fellow prisoners of war were driven to in order to survive. The book discusses the way that prisoners sought to sabotage the effort to build a railroad between Thailand and Burma and do so in a way that would not lead to getting beaten to death by brutal Japanese officers who viewed prisoners as the worst possible scum until they faced their own need to surrender in turn. The book is also eloquent in discussing the way that men struggle and overcome the horrors of war and how this can be greatly helped by the support of friends and families, and how it is possible sometimes to make better decisions than one made before about the need to communicate one’s experiences.
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