By Harry McCawley
IT never occurred to me to ask Gus Potthoff what he thought about the ongoing debate over who to let into this country and who to keep out.
That debate heated up this year during the presidential campaign, and it promises to get even hotter once the new administration comes into office. I suspect it will also get a lot uglier. With political emotions appearing to move the debate into a more exclusionary policy, Gus’ story might be valuable for policymakers.
Gus is one of those we let in. He came to the United States in 1962 after retiring from the Royal Netherlands Army. He eventually settled in Columbus in the home he still occupies on Caldwell Place. He became a citizen in 1986.
His story is pretty well known around here — not the one about his coming to the United States but the horrifying tale of a young man who spent nearly four years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese during World War II. He had enlisted in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army as a tank mechanic in 1941. Six weeks after his enlistment he was taken prisoner by the Japanese. He spent the next four years as one of thousands of slave laborers ordered to build what came to be known as the Burma-Thailand Railway.
He didn’t just lose those four years of freedom, but he had to endure brutal torture at the hands of his captors in the oppressive jungles of Southeast Asia. He also had to witness the deaths of hundreds of his fellow prisoners, either to the beatings or the heat. An estimated 13,000 prisoners died during the construction of the system.
In a loosely connected way, Gus’ story came to occupy a larger stage several years after he was freed with the release of a popular movie called “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” The movie was based on the experiences of the prisoners who built the Burma-Thailand Railway, but it was pure fiction. Gruesome though some of the scenes might have appeared to the audience, the true experiences were far worse.
Closer to the reality were the images Gus put on canvas. Late in life he turned his home into an artist studio, painting scores of scenes dredged from his wartime memory. In a way those paintings served as a counterpoint to the fiction of the movie.
It also brought attention to Gus and the true story. A television documentary was made of his experiences. He was invited to exhibit some of his paintings at art shows.
I don’t know the circumstances of how Gus immigrated to the United States in 1962. I seriously doubt that the vetting procedures at the time were anything like those in use today, but it would seem that his wartime experiences would have made entry a lot easier.
Certainly he deserved admission to this country, but it is the way in which he has lived his life as an American citizen that marks him as different from so many of us who were lucky enough to be born here.
So many of us take our citizenship for granted that we don’t consider what it means. Not Gus.
I’ve known him close to 20 years, mostly through interviews and encounters at events for veterans. I met him in what would normally be considered the autumn of his years, and as our relationship aged, so did he. He became stooped and sometimes had to be assisted getting from one place to another.
But what has remained in my mind are isolated scenes in which he and others in the audience were asked to stand and join in the Pledge of Allegiance or singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
I have to confess that my eyes were seldom on the flag at those times. They were glued to Gus. Somehow the stooped man was standing erect, his hand placed over his heart and his lips moving in unison with the words of the pledge or the national anthem. On more than one occasion I could see his eyes moisten.
In an interview several years ago, Gus described his adopted country as “the United States of America of the Brave.”
I’d have to say that one of the bravest was a man who came here from someplace else.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at email@example.com.