William Holden's safari lodge

Special to the Gazette

Ellen Jaronczyk of Williamsburg shared with me a series of exquisite wildlife photos shot by her brother-in-law, Dr. Joe Sack, a retired psychiatrist. He, and his wife, Diana, have just returned from a photo safari in Africa, where they have stayed at a famous safari lodge.

Jaronczyk asked me whether I had ever been on safari in Africa. "No," I replied, "but once, in the past, I hoped to be a guest at William Holden's Safari Lodge at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club."

She wanted to know the details. And it is strange story.

After our harrowing escape from communist Czechoslovakia, my wife and I found ourselves in Switzerland, waiting for our entry visas to the United States. To check on the status of our visas, I often visited the U.S. consulate in Zurich. One day, I was ushered into the office of the resident CIA representative.

"We know all about your background," he said. "Including that you have been a foreign correspondent based in Prague, reporting for Hungarian newspapers. I wonder whether you could help us find how money is clandestinely transferred from Switzerland to people in Hungary. Large amounts are involved."

"I will try to help," I said. Two days later, I supplied him with the names of a few Hungarian exiles living in Switzerland who served as conduits for the transfer of money.

After that, it didn't take long before I was summoned once again to his office. The CIA man was blunt. He asked me whether I would be willing to go back to communist Czechoslovakia on a short, clandestine mission. I would be smuggled through the West German border and brought back the same way. I would be handsomely rewarded and our visa application would be put on the fast track.

I asked him for some time to think this over. Walking the streets of Zurich, I noticed a movie house that was showing the 1957 British epic war film "The Bridge on the River Kwai," staring William Holden. I bought a ticket and watched the movie.

The film is a work of fiction, but based on a factual event. The construction of the Burma Railway by the Japanese. They used British prisoners of war as slave laborers. Among the British prisoners was a United States Navy commander named Shears (William Holden). He and two other prisoners attempted to escape. Two were shot dead. Shears gets away, but is badly wounded. Finally, he reaches a British hospital in Ceylon where he relishes his miraculous survival. Soon, however, he is informed that the U.S. Navy has agreed to transfer him over to the British to join a commando mission to destroy the bridge the British prisoners are building.

Seeing no way out, Cmdr. Shears "volunteers" to join the commando unit and return to the place from where he has escaped. The movie, which won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, describes in brutal detail not just the destruction of the bridge, but also the death of Shears and all of those who were sent on the mission.

The next day I informed the CIA representative that I had decided not to accept his offer. He understood. Later, I learned, every one who was sent on a mission to communist Czechoslovakia and smuggled through the West German border were apprehended by the Czech border police. They were betrayed by a mole inside the West German security services.

In the early 1980s, I read about William Holden's struggle with alcoholism. I sent him a letter describing how his masterful portrayal of Cmdr. Shears' ordeal may have saved my life, adding I consider him my savior.

A few weeks later, I received a note from his office in Santa Monica, Calif. It was a brief message, informing me that "Mr. Holden will soon be in touch with you." I have never received his answer. On Nov. 12, 1981, he died, slipping on a rug, hitting his head on the edge of a table.

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and at Amazon.com.

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