Reading Unbroken(Semicolon review here) made me want to take a look at this WW II memoir about a man who was a deacon and a patriarch at my church when I was growing up in San Angelo, Texas. Mr. Matthews also survived imprisonment with the Japanese in Southeast Asia. As I remember it, my parents told me that Mr. Matthews had been a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II but that he “didn’t like to talk about it.” So I was curious, but I never asked.
Apparently, Mr. Monday who pastored my parents’ church for a while after I had already moved away from San Angelo, did ask—and wrote this self-published book in 2004 to tell “the incredible true story of an American hero,” W.F. Matthews.
The most striking note in the book was Mr. Matthews’ almost dispassionate attitude toward his captivity.
About the Japanese treatment of prisoners: “They beat on us pretty good. It seemed like—you know most of them are short—seemed like they resented us being so much bigger than they were.”
About the New Testament BIble that he carried and hid from the Japanese all through his captivity: “I’d get down, boy, and I’d sneak out and get that thing out and sit there and read it for about 20 minutes, and boy I’d get pepped up again.”
About working near Bangkok during bombing raids: “It was pretty rough up there. The Americans started bombing us. They were bombing at River Kwai and all down through there.”
About his condition after the war’s end in hospital: “I was about 90 pounds when I got in there, and of course, I had that malaria and dysentery. And they put me in that hospital and treated me for that, and I got in pretty good shape. I started eating and I gained a little weight.” (He weighed 220 pounds when he left Texas for San Francisco at the beginning of the war.)
About his recovery from the emotional scars of the war: “People would hover around me and want to talk and I had to leave pretty quick.” “There was a creek right by the house there, and I’d go way down on that creek walking around and kind of staying by myself.”
What magnificent understatement. What a matter of fact attitude.
W.F. Matthews went on to marry and father two sons. He was, as I said a deacon in my Southern Baptist church, and I grew up with his boys. He never said much of anything about the war, certainly never intimated that he was a hero or a person to be admired. As far as I knew, until my parents mentioned something about Mr. Matthews’ war experience, he was just Randy’s and Tommy’s dad, just a good ol’ West Texas man who happened to drink coffee with my dad and some other men every morning at the Dunbar Restaurant.
I believe we are surrounded by quiet, matter of fact, humble heroes, not always war heroes, but all kinds of unheralded and unsung heroism, and we often know nothing about the stories that these quiet heroes never think to tell.
How W.F. Matthews said he wants to be remembered: “I’d like them to remember that we were Americans and that we had a little more to live for than the rest of ’em. That Bible and a few things like that made a difference.”