Was Paul Geren Our First Peace Corps Writer? Part Three

In the weeks and months that followed the bombing of Rangoon, Geren worked as a driver, and then as a field hospital attendant on the front lines which the Chinese were failing to hold against the advancing Japanese.

“Our supplies were cut off and the Japs were advancing all the time,” Paul recalled. “We were the only medical unit with Western standards. The few members of the Quaker Volunteer Ambulance Corps and myself, we carried the wounded back from the battlefield.”

All of this time his faith buffered him.

On Christmas Eve, 1941, he wrote in his Diary, “The Japanese are promising a ‘Christmas present for the white people’ over the Bangkok radio.”

They carried on in Rangoon. From Geren’s Diary, Christmas Eve, 1941:

Whatever came yesterday, and whatever will come tomorrow, tonight we sang Christmas carols. We were a motley choir, begotten of a day between air raids, so widely apart in size, in mind, in social status, and so variously gifted with song that one had to chuckle if ever he stood apart to make appraisal of us.

One of the carolers was an Austrian Jewess. It seems that this war always comes to its frightful worst when it confronts a Jew. She had escaped from Austria and had set up a little school in Rangoon. In yesterday’s raid a bomb exploded next to her house, burned it with all her things, and left her greatly shocked. All through the singing she was crying softly.

This was the place and the thing for her and for all of us. Christmas carols are excellent bits of defiance as we could have found to throw into the teeth of despair. And despair was pressing hard upon us.

If it seems farcical to singing about the Prince of Peace in a time like this, consider alternatives. A man could become cynical, could hopelessly despair, but, if he did, nothing would have been accomplished. If our choice is to be forlorn on rational grounds or hopeful on ground whose case is not conclusively logically, it ought not to be hard decision to make. It is the best part of rationality, even, to care more for hope than for the relentless logic with which war follows war.”

The first half of 1942 were months of retreat and defeat for the Allies everywhere. In Russia the critical battle of Stalingrad was being waged in hand-to-hand, block-to-block combat; in the desert sands of North Africa General Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” and his Afrika Korps forced back the British Eighth Army; while in the Pacific Japanese landing forces were snaking from island to island enroute to Australia, and General MacArthur could only talk bravely of returning. Burma, too, had fallen to the Japanese. Geren’s Diary notation for May reads, “The Japanese are to the south at Kaleywa, we think they are to the north at Myitkyina and we must try to go between before they close the circle.”

End of Part Three

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