Monday, April 18, 2011

Facing Death in a Rice Paddy

Five years ago today, my father, Kenneth Earl Davis, died at the age of 86. That he died is no surprise. The surprise is that he lived to this ripe old age. It is a testament to the power and glory of God. My father was a WWII POW and a year and a half after he enlisted in the army he found himself facing death and his life flashing before his eyes.

Just turned twenty-one, Ken found himself face down in a hard, dry rice paddy in the Philippine Islands. He figured it was his time. He would be executed like the other American soldiers he saw dragged to this spot the day before—shot and bayoneted, and stripped of all earthly possessions. Though he had not slept or eaten for days, he could not sleep, and the hunger and pain he felt was overwhelmed by the reality that he believed his life was coming to an end.

Ken had seen this in movies. A person caught in death’s trap would suddenly see their life flash before their eyes. In the movies it was a flashback played out by the characters of the film. For Ken there were no actors, no characters. This was real life. Less than two years after he enlisted in the Army and looked at a map and chose the Philippine Islands as a place to serve, he found himself facing death in a rice paddy on the Bataan peninsula. And his life began to flash before his eyes.

It was as if a screen was suspended in his mind and his memory began playing back all the scenes. He saw his mom and dad and his 11 brothers and sisters. He saw his childhood antics and his rebellious escapades. He saw his home and the church he attended as a child and the chapel he attended while at the CCC Camp. And he remembered the good news of the gospel he learned from as far back as he could remember, that Jesus died for his sins and that he, Ken, would have a place in heaven because of God’s grace and mercy demonstrated on the cross no matter what he had done. It was April 12, 1942. It was about that time of the year—Easter. The screen went blank but Ken’s mind did not. He described an overwhelming sense of peace that came over him. He knew he was about to die, but he reached deep down into the faith he embraced as a child and took hold of it again. And he prayed. He thanked God for this faith given to him. He thanked God for his family. And he prayed that if somehow he survived this rice paddy death hole he would live his life differently. He would dedicate himself to following the one who gave his life for him—Jesus Christ.

Ken did survive that rice paddy. He did not know exactly why, but he did. The Japanese soldiers returned but they did not kill him. They kicked him and told him to get up and directed him toward a column of American and Filipino troops forming down the road. Ken had survived the death paddy, but now, just two weeks past his 21st birthday, he was about to join the infamous Bataan Death March. He would survive this, too. And the death rail cars, and the death camps, and a death ship (hellship), and another death camp. For three and one half years Ken would survive unspeakable torture and brutality. And he would live another 60 years to make good on the promise to dedicate his life to following Christ.

Ken would do more than survive. He would thrive. Despite these four years of the most inhospitable treatment, Ken was the epitome of hospitality. Even though he suffered untold prejudice and evil, Ken would extend acceptance and kindness to all kinds of people. And even though these years were filled with darkness and despair, Ken would prove to be a man of optimism and hope. His life was a testament to the power of the grace and love of God.

[This story is an excerpt from a soon to be published book about Ken’s WWII POW story and how it shaped his life and the life of his children, Forged by War: A Daughter’s Story of Her WWII POW Father and How It Shaped Her, is due to be published summer 2011.]

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