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Opening the gates of hell

Oration honouring John Charles Ford
Thursday, May 29, 10 a.m.

There is a Buddhist proverb that says “To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.” To those in Nagasaki on the ninth of August, 1945, that key to heaven and hell was an atomic bomb. A Japanese woman survivor said of the aftermath: “I think if I am in hell, it is like this.” But to John Ford who stands before you now, the bomb was a key to heaven: for three-and-a-half years he had been interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Nagasaki. The bomb signalled his survival: he believed he had only weeks to live if he was not freed from the brutal conditions of the camp. He weighed 94 pounds and was suffering from filth, infection and disease.

Jack Ford’s survival was, like Dante’s circles of hell, measured in the radius he was from the bomb’s hypocentre, from ground zero: at the centre, the temperature was as hot as the surface of the sun. Where people were walking, they vaporized, reduced to ashes. The flash from the bomb was so bright, so intense, it created permanent shadows, burned into wood and etched into stone, of the leaves, the flowers and the people who had existed only moments before. At 300 metres from the centre of the blast a church was reduced to ashes, 550 metres from the centre almost an entire school of children died in their seats, but seven kilometres away in the dockyards, where the prisoners were at work, Jack Ford and his comrades survived.

There is no doubt in Jack Ford’s mind that the bomb on Nagasaki saved his life. It released him from the inner circle of Dante’s hell and brought him home to Port Aux Basques. This was where, five years earlier, he had volunteered for the Royal Air Force, and where now his mother and his fiancée, Margaret, waited.

Margaret had waited for five years, but she would have to wait for Jack a bit longer: Jack’s mother took him to St John’s to visit family, telling Margaret that after all, she would have him for a very long time. And Jack’s mother was right: Margaret and Jack have been married almost 62 years. Mr. Vice Chancellor, there is a message in this: the doctors who had examined Jack when he was released from the POW camp told him “you probably won’t live past 40.” Sometimes, mothers know more than doctors. And, the love of a good woman, well…

Many prisoners of war remained broken, captured in the circles of hell even after the fighting had ended. But in Jack Ford the experiences made him an advocate of veterans’ rights and a promoter of world peace. In preserving his wartime memories, and as the only Newfoundlander to witness an atomic bomb, Jack has added to Newfoundland’s history. For over six decades he has volunteered with the Royal Canadian Legion and received its highest award. And, he visits hundreds of school classrooms. He shows the children the mementos of his days as a prisoner of war – a tin the size of a sardine can which held his twice-daily ration of rice, his only food for three years, his chopsticks, his prisoner of war tag, number 2207 – there isn’t a whisper as he tells them that there is no glory in war, that the only things that are important are peace and freedom.

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, you have before you a man who recognizes the incongruity of having welcomed the Nagasaki bomb while condemning nuclear warfare. This paradox reflects our collective failure to understand warfare which has, like Job’s torment, an illogic that is purposefully inexplicable. As Elie Wiesel said, “the failure to comprehend indicates no flaw on our part … should our records of suffering ever become wholly familiar to us, they will make sense of what we must let remain senseless.”

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, for bridging this irony, for eloquently devoting a significant portion of his long and distinguished life to awakening in us a realization of the sheer madness and inhumanity of war, while at the same time arousing in us an innate longing for a truly peaceful world, I present to you for the degree of doctor of laws (honoris causa), John Charles Ford.

Dr. Dale Foster
University orator