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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: The Man Who Met Christ in Rangoon

Looking Back

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Looking Back - The Man Who Met Christ in Rangoon

Spiritual experiences come in all sorts of ways, but all are unexpected. This interview, from December 1969, will leave you tingling.


Ludovic Gray talks to the Rev J Donald Smith…

The Man Who Met Christ in Rangoon

Rev J Donald Smith

Rev J Donald Smith

“Twenty four years is a long time. It’s not the moment of liberation I remember best. I was too debilitated. I broke down when they told me Japan had surrendered. I was in Maudung then. It was when I saw the lighthouse. You know how it stands close to the water’s edge just south of Aberdeen. Girdleness!

Then I knew I was free and safe, and the horror was past for ever. I was home.”

Donald Smith was born near Aberdeen at Hatton of Fintray where his father was a schoolmaster. He went to Gordon’s College, graduated with Honours at Aberdeen in French and German: landed at Singapore in 1942 with the 18th Division and within a few weeks was a prisoner of war.

Almost four years later, after working on the Siam railway and the Mergui Road, he was the only one of his section to come back alive. He weighed six stones, and his eyesight was impaired. “Of course,” he said, “the mind keeps going over it – reassessing and re-interpreting. For me, in a way, it ties up with Moses, who didn’t see God’s face – only his back. We don’t see God’s face at the time – but afterwards we know He was with us. I’m certain of that.

“You believe in God. So do I. So do most men, in their way. But what’s it worth if it hasn’t been tested? There are things we’ve to accept – like the height of Everest. And there are things other people have proved, and we accept their word. But there are things we’ve to prove for ourselves, to hammer out. And one of these is that God is a God of love. Of course, He is, we say. But when you come into a situation where there’s no love, anywhere; only horror and cruelty and the gun butt smashed in your face? When you’re involved in that situation, not reading about it, or thinking about it, or hearing a sermon about it - ? Then you’ve to hammer out for yourself what love of God means.

“I see now, that for me, He put me through it, like a father preparing his child for a job to be done. In my case – the ministry. But how to love your enemies? Your real ones, I mean, who make you a beast that crawls on the earth, and toils and only wants to die? I could only see my enemy dimly as a creature like myself, caught up in something bigger than both of us, but re-acting differently.

“I remember Shegara at the end, battered like myself, sprawled in a ditch, the arch fiend and enemy.”

Donald Smith stirred in his chair. “When you’re seeing your brother,” he said, “God sometimes makes you look for him in the face of your enemy.”

In his book,'And all the Trumpets', Donald Smith tells of Shegara and the years of misery and despair, and the last dramatic meeting with the brutal guard; when each supporting the other, they walked into the air base at Prachuabkherikun. There they parted.

After he came home Donald Smith served in Rothesay as a Youth Officer. That was from 1947 to ’54. Then he resumed studies at Abrdeen, graduated B.D., was ordained to Errol Parish and later came to Cults East. It was in the manse there overlooking the Dee that we met again and talked together.

“I met Christ in Rangoon,” he said.

“When Paul says something like that folk believe him. But if you say it – or I – they say you’re a crank.

They think of Christ with a robe and trimmed beard. But I met him, I know.

“In Rangoon, I’d reached a stage of physical and nervous exhaustion.

“Doctors had no idea what we’d been through. We still acted like prisoners. We squatted instead of sitting. We were Rip Van Winkles. The world had gone past us. After facing death in the jungle we were afraid to face life. I didn’t want to go home. I craved for the jungle, to get back into the cage. It was the strangest feeling. I almost volunteered to go back.

“Then in hospital I met Donald Fell. He was an Australian Petty-Officer, and he told me I had to go home. There was a job for me. One day we broke from hospital. It seems like something you’d do under strain. But no! It was an act of cool sobriety. For me I was going along with the Risen Christ.

“He took me down to the river, this man Fell. Off shore lay the hospital ship, gleaming in the sun. “That’s the way you’ve to go,” said Fell. He went up to a Burmese fisherman and asked for his boat. Now, no Burmese will ever part with his boat, to strangers or men in hospital blue. It’s his livelihood. But Fell got it.

“How much?” I asked. “Nothing,” he said. “I just said I had need of it.”

He rowed me out and I clambered up the gangway. I was determined I was going home, there and then!

“Two sailors, on guard, struggled with me and an officer intervened. Eventually I was removed and Fell and I were taken ashore. But that triggered off my release. Next day they told me I was going home. And they put me aboard the ship.

“I never saw Fell again. I wrote to the Admiralty in Sydney, but no one knew him, no one could trace his name. It was as though he had appeared and vanished again.

And I knew then how the disciples had felt when they’d seen the Lord.”

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