How Living as a Fugitive Affected My Life
IT WAS a moonlit night after particularly heavy rains in the autumn of 1941. As I picked my way cautiously along the cobbled path of a village on the island of Crete, a group of masked men rushed at me from the shadows. One of them put a knife to my throat and demanded to know who I was. “Phillippos Paschalakis!” I replied.
Imagine my relief as another removed his mask, noting: ‘He’s one of us. Let him go!’ He and his brother had murdered their uncle a few weeks earlier, so they were wanted by the Cretan police. But I was wanted by both the police and the Nazis. After warning me not to betray them, they let me go. This is but one of the paralyzing experiences I had as an escaped prisoner of war on the Mediterranean island of Crete during World War II.
How I Came to Be in Crete
I was born in 1919 in Corowa, a small farming town in southeastern Australia, and was married shortly before the Germans started World War II by invading Poland in September 1939. War propaganda immediately whipped up patriotic fervor, and thousands of young Australians responded by rushing into uniform. Dad’s patriotism, however, was somewhat tarnished by memories of World War I, so he was noncommittal. But Mother advised an older brother and me to do what we felt was right.
The following month, October 1939, I joined the Australian Imperial Forces and soon was on my way to England. I had been there almost a year when we sailed for the battle zone in Greece. Since the Germans controlled much of the Mediterranean, we went to the extreme south around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, up through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and then on to Greece.
A Fugitive in Crete
I was in Greece when the Germans invaded in April 1941 and was among the Allied troops who retreated to the island of Crete, some 65 miles [105 km] southeast of Greece. The following month, when the Germans landed and drove most of the Allied troops out of Crete, I was taken prisoner of war. A month later, however, three other prisoners and I succeeded in escaping.
We made for the hills and were hospitably received by the Cretans. Their sincere concern and friendliness were extraordinary. The four of us escapees decided to split up, since remaining together could quickly attract attention. I spent the next two years as a fugitive among the villages east of the river Typhlos in the department of Canea. It was there that I learned the cold, hard facts of outdoor living in winter and summer.
Hunger was ongoing. But obtaining footwear was an even greater problem than getting food. A pair of leather boots wore out in only a few months on the stony roads of Crete, and leather was extremely scarce. Blistered, bruised feet and sickness were frequent experiences. The language was another problem. To survive, I learned to speak Greek.
I was able to wheedle a forged identification card out of an inebriated mayor who felt sorry for me. A young Cretan doctor made it up. The Greek name I chose was Phillippos Paschalakis, which I signed on the card with my own hand. I took the surname Paschalakis because I scorned the church’s hypocritical practice of fasting at Easter (Pasch), since everybody was already starving.
The German occupation created tremendous hardships for the population. But the Greek Orthodox clergy did not help. They had houses and land themselves, yet they exacted food and money from a starving population. Moreover, they dominated the lives of people with a lot of ritual and formalism but gave no real spiritual enlightenment. The fine qualities of the Cretans that I got to know were quite different from the intolerance I often saw in their clergy.
What particularly surprised me was the active participation of the clergy in the war. I personally knew a priest who condoned the mutilation of Germans who had been killed by partisans. Our paths crossed many times, since he too was wanted by the Nazis. I personally saw Greek Orthodox priests leading guerrilla forces and sharing in brutality and sadism.
Mother and Father had not been religiously inclined—although they had high moral principles—so neither was I. In fact, by the time I joined the armed forces, I was a confirmed agnostic. The activities of the clergy now clinched my lack of real faith in God. There were other unexplained oddities about life that influenced my thinking but none equaled the influence of the clergy during wartime.
Hiding mostly in the mountains, I found myself with many hours for serious thinking. At times I thought about the man that murdered his uncle and who said of me, ‘He’s one of us.’ It was true in more ways than one. I too had taken human life. Was I really so different from them? These were things I would think about. I noted that people do terrible things because of the circumstances they are forced to endure.
In one of the villages where I was taking refuge, I stayed with a family who, like most others, were at the point of starvation. One of the children pitifully asked her father for some bread. This so enraged him that while I looked on, he thrashed her. Later, the man broke down and was deeply sorry for what he had done. I filed away experiences like this.
So, in between devising ways to escape from Crete, I had ample time to meditate on the perplexing problems of life. The stars under which I spent most nights were so permanent, and yet human life and values were so short and uncertain. Why? I found no answer and so concluded there was none.
In the spring of 1943, after two years of avoiding capture by the Germans or their supporters, I escaped along with a group of others from the remote southern coast to Tobruk in North Africa. Our escape by motor torpedo boat was arranged by a British agent sent to Crete to organize underground resistance. After some weeks in Egypt, I was returned to Australia where I received a medical discharge following a period of hospitalization.
Shortly after my return, The Australian Women’s Weekly of July 24, 1943, carried a story about my surviving for two years as a fugitive in Crete. A picture of me appeared with my wife, Gwen, and our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Anita, who was born while I was overseas. A picture of my forged identification card appeared too. You can see reproductions of these pictures with this article.
Achieving a Purpose in Life
Family responsibilities and the death of my mother made me seek relief in a live-for-today syndrome. As a result, my family began to suffer. I felt that there must be some purpose to life, but where could it be found?
At my place of work, there was a young man, Eric Gosden, who stood out in some way from the others. Unknown to me, Eric had recently become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He later admitted: “As soon as I realized I had found the truth, I made a beeline to you.” He skillfully refuted my disbelief and readjusted my wife’s religious views. Soon I found even my agnosticism disappearing.
The help of other Witnesses was summoned, and they answered all my questions and replaced my previous agnosticism with a sure hope in a paradise earth and a real brotherhood of man. The turning point for me came when I found out that the Bible condemned religious hypocrisy that had disgusted me so much in wartime. What a mistake I had made! When I threw out false religious teachings and behavior, I threw out the precious Word of God along with them.
In 1950 Gwen and I were baptized at the same district convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In time Anita, who was born in 1941, and Pauline, who arrived in 1947, followed our example. It has been a source of encouragement to have these three women develop into fine spiritual sisters, in addition to being wife and daughters to me.
Helping Those in Need
As the girls grew a little older, we began to plan for overseas missionary work. In 1956 the Watch Tower Society’s president, N. H. Knorr, visited Australia and invited families to move to one of the South Pacific islands where graduates from the Gilead missionary school had not been able to gain entry. We, along with a number of others, accepted the invitation. Selling our home, we used the proceeds to finance our move to New Caledonia.
There were only two Witnesses when we arrived. Adjusting to the different customs and learning another language was a challenge. But having survived on Crete under much more difficult circumstances provided useful experience. Helping fellow Australians also to adjust, as well as bringing the good news of God’s purposes to the local people, was a privilege. By the time the Australian families serving where the need was greater had to leave New Caledonia in 1963, the number of Witnesses had increased to 58.
Back in Australia, we found that quite a change had taken place. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Europe had arrived. Then, in more recent years, thousands more have come from Southeast Asia, bringing people of all sorts right to our doorstep. Because of having lived as a fugitive in Crete, I have strong fellow feeling for newcomers struggling with a new language and a different environment. So it was quite exciting for me to see 14 ethnic congregations and groups formed in Australia during 1974 and 1975. This number has now grown to 85.
My hope at the end of World War II to see a real brotherhood of man has been realized in a wonderful way. For years after leaving New Caledonia, I had the privilege of serving that brotherhood as a traveling overseer, visiting congregations in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide until poor health called for a change of pace.
Among those we continue to try to help are people who are deaf, blind, lonely, or physically or mentally impaired, as well as those who are drug addicts or alcoholics, and even those who are agnostics or atheists. It remains a spiritual challenge to understand people—their backgrounds, customs, foibles, hang-ups. My early experience taught me never to look at the outside appearance but to try to reach the heart. For what overriding purpose? That by Jehovah’s undeserved kindness, ‘some might be saved.’ (1 Corinthians 9:22, 23)—As told by Farleigh James.
[Pictures on page 21]
GUNNER FARLEIGH JAMES, escapee from Crete, with his wife and 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Anita. Anita was born after Gunner James went overseas.
From The Australian Women’s Weekly, Sydney