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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Travails of a prisoner of the Japanese in war

Jerry Bowen

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In my last column, I wrote about the fall of Corregidor to the Japanese on May 8, 1942, and the surrender of American forces on Bataan the following day.

Actually, that was incorrect. The Japanese had captured Bataan a month before on April 9.

About the only good thing that can be said of those dark days is that with the Americans and Filipinos making a stand on Bataan, Corregidor, and the southern islands of the Philippines, the Japanese military timetable for the conquest of the South Pacific was disrupted.

The heroic stands gained valuable time for the United States to recover from Japan’s initial onslaught that had begun with the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

While the Japanese were still pounding Corregidor, they led their Bataan prisoners on a forced march to Camp O’Donnell, about 60 miles away.

During the “Death March,” the prisoners were subjected to intense heat with almost no water or food, and some were bayoneted and shot along the way. The result was that somewhere between 5,000 and 11,000 troops never made it to Camp O’Donnell, located at Capas, in north central Luzon.

The camp was a former U.S. Army training installation that the Japanese had turned into a prisoner-of-war camp, where more terror awaited the unfortunate men after the horrendous forced march.

Corregidor fell May 6, 1942, after a particularly heavy aerial bombardment. Nearly 12,000 men were taken prisoner. George Nelson, who had been wounded, was placed aboard a Japanese ship on July 2, 1942, and was transported to Bilibid prison in Manila, arriving the next day. Built in 1865 by the Spanish, Bilibid was designed to house 3,000 inmates. The Japanese had converted it to use as a hospital and transfer center for POWs.

In the prologue of his book “Starvation Days,” Nelson related:

“The wounded weren’t evacuated for nearly two months. The doctors and the wounded went to Bilibid prison. The nurses were sent to Santo Tomas University, which had been converted into a civilian internment camp.

“It was terrible when I first got there. I saw those pale faces and a few crosses out there and I said, ‘Oh, geez.’ That first day all we got was about a half a mess kit of rice, nothing with it. And I said, ‘Oh, no, this is it.’ But things looked up gradually. They got a little better. Turned out to be pretty good, finally. We got to buy a few things like some tea leaves once in a while, and we could buy a little bit of dry rice and you’d soak it and grind it up and pool with somebody else and make some hotcakes, and once in a while you could buy a duck egg.

“The hospital was staffed with American doctors and corpsmen from all branches of the service. They were captured in Manila at the beginning of the war and put in Bilibid prison, so they took care of us. They still had some medical supplies left.”

With the passing of time, the tide of war gradually began turning against the invaders. On Feb. 9, 1942, the American forces defeated the Japanese at Guadalcanal. By this time, it was estimated that 60,000 of our troops and allies had been killed since the beginning of hostilities, and the war in the Pacific was still young.

After about 10 months, George’s foot was healed enough that he was sent on a train to Cabanatuan Prison Camp, arriving there on May 17, 1943.

At the same time, the Battle of the Aleutians had been raging, with the Japanese finally capitulating there on May 19, 1943.

When George arrived at Cabanatuan Prison Camp, he found that the prisoners had been broken up into squads of 10 men each. The men had been told that if anyone in the squad were to escape, the other nine would be executed.

The Japanese had turned the camp into a central pool of prisoners who were sent out on various work details. The details included sending anywhere from 300 to 7,500 men out to build airfields or to work in the port area as stevedores, loading and unloading ships.

Apparently there was little discipline evident between the POWs before George arrived at Cabanatuan, which was originally built as a training camp for the Philippine army. In the beginning, conditions were filthy, adding to the misery, disease and deaths of the prisoners. The lack of discipline made conditions even worse.

One ward was called the “Zero Ward,” where hopelessly ill and wounded prisoners were placed without any treatment. On the worst days, as many as 50 men died in the ward, according to Nelson.

He described how Marine Corps Col. Beecher was able to correct some of the problems that existed before he arrived at the prison: “The camp really came under control when Colonel Beecher took charge. He laid down the law and got things in order, putting people in barracks. He cleaned up the camp and established sanitary conditions. They managed to kill the flies. Men even got rewarded for turning in dead flies.”

Stories told to interviewers about the camp after the war included one about a prisoner who was so hungry that he crawled through the fence one night and went to a neighboring town, where a Filipino gave him some food. Then he returned to the camp and was caught crawling back through the fence by a Japanese guard. The Japanese commander roused the entire camp out of bed and made a speech on the futility of escape. The prisoner was paraded around camp for several days without food or water and then taken out of camp and beheaded.

Occasionally there was some relief from the daily drudgery and uncertainty of remaining alive.

Nelson recalled, “In Cabanatuan the prisoners put on a show every once in a while, maybe once a month. There was a lot of talent there. We had bands, men from Shanghai. They had some instruments, but damn few. The guy that put on the shows, Tom Melody, had played in burlesque shows in the states, so he was good. The shows were really well done, considering the conditions. They sure kept up our morale, but they could also make you homesick.”

By December 1943, American Forces were advancing on a wide front in the Pacific Theater.

At home in the United States, race rioting rocked New York, Detroit and Los Angeles. Major strikes against the railroad in America were on the horizon. President Roosevelt ordered the seizure of the railroads, directing the Army to operate the railroad system until the disputing parties reached a settlement.

By May 17, 1944, the Japanese had been defeated at Kwajelein, Eniwetok, Hollandia and Wake Island as the American forces moved ever closer to the Japanese homeland and the Philippines. Merrill’s Marauders were on the march through Burma, adding to the worries of the Japanese High Command.

On March 6, 1944, George was returned to Bilibid prison temporarily, as the Japanese began to remove the POWs from the Philippines and relocate them to Japan, Korea and China.

George was transferred from Manila to Japan on March 24, a 16-day voyage. He was somewhat lucky to be on one of the early transports, as later ships increasingly came under attack from Allied planes and submarines, whose crews were not aware that the POWs were on board.

In my next column, we will follow George Nelson through his voyage and imprisonment in Japan until he was finally liberated.

I thank the Rio Vista Museum for permission to use the information contained in the book, “Starvation Days,” about George Nelson’s POW days. You can purchase the book from the Rio Vista Museum. There is so much more to the story than will appear in the columns. While you are at the museum, take the time to enjoy this fine home of our past.