Net, video help preserve sailor’s POW ordeal

by David Waddell

Regional correspondent Stanley Willner’s wartime odyssey began on Nov. 29, 1942, when the merchant vessel he was serving on was torpedoed by a German raider in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar. He was plucked from the water by the German crew and spent a few months on board his captors’ vessel recovering from wounds he sustained during the attack. Eventually he and the other survivors were handed over to the Japanese army in Singapore, and following a brief internment at Changi Prison, he was carted off to the River Kwai in Thailand where he spent the next two years toiling on the notorious Death Railway. Willner, now 79 and residing in Florida, is one of the few living survivors of this dark chapter in wartime history. Thanks to the Internet and a recent documentary video about former prisoners of war titled “No Way Back,” his story is being told. Willner’s son, Mark, and World War II veteran-turned-video producer Zed Merrill, both of Portland, Ore., were instrumental in bringing the story to life. Mark Willner set up a home page a few months ago that tells of his father’s wartime experiences. “I went to see ‘Saving Private Ryan’ last year and the opening scenes hit me pretty hard emotionally,” he said. “I guess that I wanted to do something to bring my dad’s words to life, and time is of the essence now that he is elderly.” The home page is linked to a Web site chronicling the exploits of the merchant marine in World War II. Merrill’s video about merchant marine POWs features Stanley Willner and was released in the United States in August. His previous videos about World War II, “Forgotten Valor” and “The Winter Winds of Hell,” were winners of National Telly Awards. “No Way Back” is available via mail order, but Merrill has a national distribution deal with Marathon Video that will expose it to a larger audience. It is also scheduled to be aired on public television next year. Of his most recent work, Merrill, 75, said, “I just wanted to make a contribution in helping tell the story of the merchant marine veterans.”Willner’s story is a chilling testament of man’s inhumanity to man. He recounts how POWs on the Death Railway were forced to work in the tropical heat 14 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of their physical condition. Those unable to work because of illness were beaten. Rations consisted of a handful of rice and a pint of boiled water a day and a bowl of watery soup twice a week, according to Willner. Insects were also eaten as a source of nourishment. Malaria and cholera were rampant and medical supplies nonexistent, he added. During his internment, Willner’s weight plummeted from 61 kg to 34 kg. Of the 3,000 men who made up the work camp that he belonged to, only 1,000 survived the ordeal; Willner is now the only living survivor of this group. It is estimated that 150,000 POWs and slave laborers perished during construction of the railway to link Thailand and Burma. To add insult to injury, at the end of the war, Willner and other former merchant seamen were not given veteran status by the U.S. government even though they performed a critical role during the war. It was not until 1988 that they received full benefits — recognition that Willner fought almost 40 years to obtain. Although many years have passed since his ordeal, Willner says memories of the war still haunt him today. Not surprisingly, he finds it hard to forgive the Japanese for what took place. “As far as I know, they haven’t repented one little bit,” Willner said. Like many victims of Japanese wartime aggression, the POWs never received an official apology or any compensation from the Japanese government for the abuse they suffered, according to Willner. In 1976, Willner attended a march of forgiveness at the River Kwai organized by Takashi Nagase, who served as an interpreter for Japan’s military police on the Death Railway. But when it came time to cross the bridge in a symbolic gesture of reconciliation, Willner recalled the many men who died on the railway and found himself unwilling to participate. As a result of the reunion, however, he formed a bond with Nagase and the two have corresponded for many years. “Nagase was the only Japanese who shed a tear at the cemetery at the Kwai reunion in 1976. He seemed concerned,” Willner said. Nagase, 81, has made headlines recently for his efforts to erect a temple in Thailand to honor his fallen comrades. For more information, check the Web page at www.usmm.org/links.html