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Stanley Willner: On the Railway of Death

Story by Gary Greenberg
Photo by Mike Price
Courtesy of Boca Raton Magazine

September 2001--Stanley Willner was one of the guys who built the bridge over the River Kwai. But it was nothing like the movie. 

    “No one stood up to the Japanese like they did in the movie,” he says. “The Japs thought nothing of cutting off the heads of their own men, much less ours.” 

    Willner, now 82 and living at PGA West in Palm Beach Gardens, was a young officer in the Merchant Marine when his transport ship was blown out of the water by a German warship in 1942. After treating him for serious shrapnel injuries, the Germans turned him over to the Japanese in the South Pacific. 

    “The German doctor gave me a note for the Japanese doctors explaining my condition,” he says. “But there were no Japanese doctors. And when I gave the note to a  Jap officer, he hit me in the face with a rifle butt. I knew things were going to be bad after that.” 

    Willner is an unassuming, soft-spoken, gentle soul of a man whose eyes and manner belie the fact that he witnessed and somehow managed to survive horrific atrocities while working on the infamous Death Railway through Thailand as a prisoner of war. 

    “We’d work before sun-up until after sundown, seven days a week,” he says. “If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat -- or were just beaten to death. 

    “We had every disease known to man -- beriberi, scurvy, amoebic dysentery, malaria, pellagra -- some I’d never even heard of. People were dying like flies. The worst job was collecting bodies to burn. Some were still alive.” 

    Willner, a slight man who weighed about 130 pounds before the war, dropped to seventy-five while in captivity. He also lost an eye. 

    “I didn’t shave or cut my hair for over two years,” he notes, “but I was so malnourished, it barely grew.” 

    He was known about the camp for collecting a scrapbook of drawings and writings from his fellow prisoners, who were mostly British, Australian and Dutch. 

    “I did it for morale,” he says. “It made the guys feel worthwhile just to have someone ask them to write something down or draw a picture.” 

    He still has it, the pages of scrap paper now plasticized for posterity. The book is both pitiful and inspiring, a testament to the power of lost souls. 

    Willner has lots of stories to tell, like the time his buddy Dennis Roland underwent a crude emergency appendectomy in the Thai jungle. Willner stole a duck and fed Roland its eggs, the extra nourishment helping him to pull through. 

    “If they’d found out about the duck, they would have killed me on the
spot,” Willner says matter-of-factly. 

    The brutality of the Japanese still haunts him. He tells about a one-legged Englishman who used to heat bath water for the Japanese officers. One day, he made the water too hot, so they boiled him alive. 

    “We had to stand there and watch,” Willner recalls. “I never forgot those screams.” 

    Perhaps Willner’s greatest indignity came after the war was over, after he was sent to be de-wormed at an Army field hospital in Calcutta, after he was shipped home to Virginia an emaciated, sore-covered, shell of his former self. It came when he was told he wasn’t entitled to veteran’s benefits because he’d been a Merchant Marine sailor rather than a member of the U.S. armed forces. 

    “At that point, I was too sick to care,” he says. “I went to private
physicians and my family took care of me.” 

    Many years later, he righted that wrong by successfully suing the government to win veteran’s rights for all of the Merchant Marine sailors who fought in World War II. In the meantime, he raised a family and worked hard in his mother’s small chain of apparel stores before going into the motel business. 

    In 1976, Willner went back to Thailand to participate in a march of forgiveness. As the march participants approached the bridge over the River Kwai, the media turned up in force. Willner made news by flatly refusing to walk across the bridge. 

    “It wasn’t something I planned,” he explains. “In fact, I was surprised to see so much media there, Peter Jennings, a reporter from the Times and all. 

    “I saw the Japanese standing there in fancy suits -- they had become so rich -- and I refused to cross the bridge because I never felt they were sorry for what they did. They haven’t paid one cent in reparations and there’s no mention of the atrocities in their history books. It’s like it never happened. 

    “The truth is they had no more regard for a human being than you have for a cockroach. We can forgive, but we should never forget.”

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