I walked past the War Cemetery every day on my way to work, but it was years before I noticed him.
A tiny old man dressed in khaki, kneeling on hands and knees.
Always khaki, always kneeling, every day.
Some days I didn’t see him at first, but he was there, kneeling among the gravestones, perhaps hidden between the larger monuments.
One bright April day, I bought an extra tea from the shop and brought it to him.
I gave him the cup.
He bowed his thanks.
I introduced myself.
“I am Duc,” he said. He was a tiny man with a lined face, toothless and wrinkled like an ape.
“I see you here every day.”
He smiled and held up a pair of worn chopsticks. “I tend my friends’ graves with these. It is my privilege.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We built a railway together,” he said. “For the Japanese.”
The Thai–Burma railway was built in 1942–43 to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes that were made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. As chronicled in the 1957 classic Bridge On The River Kwai, The Japanese Imperial Army found a ready supply of labour in British prisoners-of-war captured when Singapore fell in February 1942. The line was completed in just a year. Starvation, disease, and the brutal treatment by their captors all took their toll. More than 13,000 POWs and 100,000 native laborers lost their lives. One man died for every sleeper laid.