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.”


What Pegman Saw


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.


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  1. Joy Pixley

    A touching tribute to those who suffered together and are left behind to honor those long gone. People talk about the horrors of war, but there are so many more horrors than we even realize, hidden in the corners and behind closed doors and underneath stacks of paperwork and faded photographs.

  2. neelwritesblog

    The collateral damages of war. Very well written, Hardy. Coincidence, both of us have written about the same thing, though mine talks about a particular incident.

  3. Alicia Jamtaas

    Oh, the chopsticks brought a tear. I’ve seen documentaries with live footage about building the Thai–Burma railway. The contrast between pick-axes and chopsticks … you done good…..

    • J Hardy Carroll

      Thanks for the kind words. The chopsticks are highly symbolic in this piece, since the Japanese starved their prisoners and chopsticks were empty more often than not in POW camps. Also, the care and precision involved in his individually plucking every weed from 600 graves is something completely foreign to the western mind.

Don't just stand there.