Top: Gus Potthoff as a young soldier and his painting of a B-24 dive-bombing the bridges over the “Kwai” river. Bottom: Gus Potthoff (left) poses with two fellow tank technicians in Holland circa 1956.
A polished Consolidated B-24J Liberator sits inside a Fantasy of Flight hangar in Polk City, Fla. The venerable bomber served in the skies of the China-India-Burma theater during World War II. Although this flying machine may have undertaken arduous missions, nothing the aeroplane or it aircrews encountered can compare to the hellish ordeal of Gutav Potthoff who was involuntarily in the jungles below. This kind and gentle man is a former prisoner of war.
Mr. Potthoff was born in the Netherlands East Indies. (The country is now Indonesia.) In late 1941, he enlisted in a Royal Netherlands East Indies Army tank battalion at Bandoeng, Java. Gus was a mechanic. Some 6 weeks after enlisting he became a captive. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Kanchanaburi War Cemetery Web page briefly relates history Gus knows all too well.
Numbers of the Burma-Thailand Railway (Burma-Siam Railway) prisoners were Dutch Commonwealth, Dutch, British, British Commonwealth and American. The project was a Japanese undertaking to support their large army in Burma. During its construction, some 13,000 prisoners died along the path of the railway. Approximately 80,000 to 100,000 civilians from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, as well as conscripts from Siam (Thailand) and Burma, also met their deaths.
Mr. Potthoff saw many people die and personally experienced the brutality of his Japanese captors and Korean guards. He credits the Lord, his “Higher Power,” and angels and spirits for enabling him to survive the horrendous ordeal. Gustav would never be the same.
Gus knows the true story of the building and bombings of the bridges over the Mae Klong River. His first-hand account differs considerably from that of the book and largely inaccurate 1957 Academy Award-winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai. The two works are entertaining but at the same time misleading.
The construction project was massive. Two groups, one based in Siam and the other in Burma worked from opposite ends. The result was a railway and 2 particularly notable spans over a waterway. The first platform was a temporary wooden bridge. In 1942, this wooden structure first came under aerial attack, and afterward Gus and his enslaved colleagues had to build a second trestle of concrete and steel. The latter was also the target of American B-24 Liberators, and the center span suffered severe damage. The wooden bridge no longer exists but most of the other is still in use.
Gus states the following: “Life is pretty when you are free.” Mr. Potthoff gained freedom after the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. In January 1946, Gus returned to active duty and served during the ensuing conflict in Indonesia. Mr. Potthoff remained in his native land until 1955. Then Gus relocated to the Netherlands as a non-commissioned officer and tank maintenance technician until his retirement from the Royal Netherlands Army in 1962. Mr. Potthoff then emigrated to the United States, a country he terms the “United States of America of the Brave.”
After retirement, Gus began painting to tell his fascinating and unforgettable tale of oppression, starvation, disease and death. Through the use of canvas, brush and paints he regularly returns to the days of captivity. His purpose is to honor and pay tribute to the men he cannot forget. Furthermore, Gus does not want other generations to overlook them. Some of the men, including an Australian he befriended, remain in unmarked jungle graves. However, to Gus, they are still alive. His strong faith and spiritual guides command him to forgive hid oppressors but not to forget their sacrifices.
Today, Gus volunteers at the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum in Columbus, Ind., where some of his works are on display. The organization maintains a Web page that relates basic details of Gus’ story. In 2006, in conjunction with WFYI, the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum produced Lest We Forget: A Survivor’s Story. The film tells Gus’ powerful, dramatic, moving and very spiritual story. Videos are available. Interested individuals should telephone (812) 372-4356.
Fantasy of Flight is in Polk City, Fla. The complex is north of Interstate 4 at 1400 Broadway Boulevard Southeast. The attraction’s telephone number is (863) 984-3500.
The author (John Stemple) wishes to thank Gus Potthoff for graciously granting him an interview.