Corregidor fell on May 6, 1942, and the service members who remained there were taken prisoner of war. They were held on Corregidor until arrangements could be made to move them to POW camps the Japanese had set up.
It is important to remember that Japan did not subscribe to the Geneva Convention so they were not hampered by such rules as treating prisoners humanely. It is also true that the Japanese looked upon anyone who surrendered as less than human, so they were even more inclined to subject their prisoners to horrendously vicious treatment. According to the Center for Internee Rights United States prisoners in captivity perished at a rate over eighteen times greater under the Japanese than those under the Germans.
The prisoners were held at the 92nd Garage area on Corregidor where they had no protection from the sun or other elements. They were provided almost nothing to eat. Despite the deprivations and oppressive heat, they were forced to work as slaves in Japanese work details and used as hostages to force the surrender of the remaining American forces in the Philippines.
More than three weeks passed before they were transported to Manila by barge where they were forced into the water at the edge of the bay. Then the soaked, spent and starving POWs were paraded through the streets of Manila. This was meant to humiliate the Americans before the public and demonstrate the might of the Japanese. The following day they were moved by train to Capas, Tarlac, often crammed into hot fetid boxcars with barely room to stand. From Capas they were forced to march about eight miles to Cabanatuan.
The POWs taken on Corregidor were not part of the infamous Bataan Death March but many closely followed part of the route the death march had taken from Capas to Cabanatuan. Thankfully their treatment on the journey was not nearly as brutal as that of their brothers on the death march.
All POW camps were inadequate for the numbers of prisoners being held. Most had scarce water available often with only a few spigots accessible for the entire camp and an endless line of prisoners waiting to fill their canteens or other containers. Food was starvation rations and amenities such as blankets and clothing consisted of only what the POWs had been able to bring with them. Sanitation was primitive and only added to the problems in the camps.
Dad arrived at Cabanatuan with nothing but the clothes on his back. He was assigned to a bamboo barracks with only straw mats on the floor for beds. Another POW, "DN," was kind enough to give Dad one of his blankets and they became fast friends.
Early on in Dad's imprisonment at Cabanatuan, three POWs escaped. They were later caught, then tortured for several days until they were begging to be killed. After they were forced to dig their own graves, they were shot in front of all the other POWs in camp in order to discourage further thoughts of escape. The POWs were later formed into groups of ten. If any member of a group even tried to escape the other nine would be shot.
Illness was rampant within the POW population. Dysentery was almost expected and Dengue fever and malaria were prevalent. Many of the POWs had been malnourished before their capture due to restricted food allocations because of the war in the Philippines, and imprisonment only exacerbated the problem. As a result, deficiency illnesses such as beriberi and pellagra were also common.
Dad was among those selected for transport to Japan early in his captivity. They were taken to Manila where they were put aboard "hellship" Nagato Maru for the voyage to Japan. The trip was much quicker than later voyages, but it was brutal nonetheless. The POWs were placed in dark holds with barely enough room to stand. Buckets provided for urination and defecation frequently spilled or overturned leaving the prisoners literally swimming in waste. Those who were already sick became sicker and weaker, and many simply gave up.
They finally arrived in Osaka, Japan on Thanksgiving Day of 1942. The rags and loincloths that had been adequate in the Philippines were insufficient for the cold in Japan. Many of the POWs from Nagato Maru were sent to Umeda Bunsho in Osaka where they would be used as slave labor working for Japanese businesses. Dad and his buddies worked for Mitsubishi. Once again food rations were limited. Dad said they ate a lot of fish heads, rotten rice they picked up off the ground and even toothpaste or powder from the Red Cross packages they were allowed to receive. Although there may have been quite a few Red Cross packages sent to Osaka, the Japanese generally rifled through them and removed the better items before they were given to the POWs. And it was routine for those packages to be held for months or years before being given to the prisoners.
Dad was assigned to work details loading and unloading freight cars. Much of the freight was machinery, metals, building materials and dry goods, but sometimes there were shipments of varied food items. Dad and other POWs worked together and also stole together. Given their jobs, there were opportunities to try to remove small amounts of edibles and secrete them for later. They referred to this activity as "strafing." This was done by carefully opening and reaching into crates or poking small holes in rice bags just to take a few grains. Discovery would result in severe punishment. In fact the extra food obtained by strafing most likely helped them to survive.
Beatings and slappings were routine for all the POWs for any reason or no reason at all. Dad's most severe beating happened when he was caught trying to steal some clams. He had put them in a sock and tied it to his ankle under his pants. But his misconduct was discovered at shakedown and he sustained a vicious beating that included the sock full of clams being used as a blackjack. He suffered the consequences of those horrendous beatings for the rest of his life.
Dad later was allowed to air a message from a radio station. The transmission was broadcast in December of 1944 and heard by many people who wrote to Grandpa and Grandma. They had also received a telegram telling them about it. A Ham radio operator recorded the message. Dad said he was at his normal weight. Of course that was far from true but it was likely a requirement by the Japanese to possibly be heard. The time was limited, but Dad was allowed to name another POW so he mentioned DN. His message brought great hope and relief to two waiting families. Copies of the recording were sent to Grandpa and Grandma as well as DN's parents.
Despite the horrors of life as a prisoner of war, there were moments of amusement. Sabotage was certainly a good way to "get back" at their captors. It was risky business, but often they felt it worth the risk and took a chance. Many of our POWs spent lots of time daydreaming about what they would eat, where they would go, whom they would see and what they would do when they finally got home. They enjoyed talking among themselves about their aspirations. I've read of elaborate menus being planned. And most of the guys, including Dad wanted to get married as soon as they got home. One of Dad's favorite dreams was to go hunting in Alaska. These small respites helped the POWs to survive their time in hell.
The Umeda Bunsho prisoners were moved to Tsuruga POW camp in March of 1945. At Tsuruga they again worked loading and unloading rail cars and also ships. The camp frequently had to be moved because of napalm bombing. The prisoners noted that whenever everyone ran for the bunker during bombing runs it was always the Japanese cowering in fear while the prisoners were talking and laughing. One day the POWs were put to work digging tunnels into a nearby hill, but the next day the Japanese told them there was no more work...the Americans have a bomb that makes it unsafe even underground. The war had finally ended. They moved into a Japanese Army barracks and marked the roof so the Americans would know it was a POW camp. American planes then started dropping food and Army uniforms. Dad's friend DN left in search of the Americans so he could make his way home. Dad stayed in Tsuruga and was repatriated from there.
Grandma and Grandpa spent great amounts of time worrying about Dad while he was missing and a POW. Grandpa's journals are filled with thoughts of caring and concern. And I remember seeing letters that Grandma had written to President Roosevelt requesting any bits of information that might be had. Grandma once had a dream of Dad and some other men dressed only in sugar sacks. While it seems a rather odd dream, it served to reassure her that her dear son was in fact alive. (Dad later confirmed that indeed he had worn sugar sacks.) One of Dad's brothers decided to enlist so he could go look for Dad. The entire family was consumed with worry and spent much time in prayer. Grandma was even in charge of the War Bond campaign in Lehi.
Even after the war had ended it took some time for Dad to be liberated and contact home, so the folks were waiting on pins and needles for word. On September 15, 1945 they received a letter from Dad's friend saying he was OK and would be out soon. They then hoped he'd be home for his birthday on the 25th but that wasn't to be. On October 2nd they finally received a letter from Dad on Guam. Dad phoned on October 14th but the folks were out. Grandma and Grandpa tried to reach Dad by phone in San Diego a couple of times but were unable to get through.
On October 19th, 1945, Grandpa wrote in his journal: "We went early to Clear Creek and did what chores were to be done and then about noon after phoning to Jr., we left for Phoenix and arrived there about 4 P.M. or later. Jim went on home. We met a plane from Cal., but Jr. was not on it. Olga & June had earlier met the bus, I think. Bub, Mom & I went up to Ruth's to see her and phoned to Renabelle but they hadn't seen him. We met the Navy plane but no Jr. Came on to Bub's and June & Olga shouted, 'Jr. is here,' he had come a few minutes before in a taxi. The long wait was over and our dear boy was home at last. He looked tired and had a haunted look, but it was great to see him in the flesh again. We talked till late, 2 A.M. This is our 40th anniversary and Jr. coming made it a perfect day."
Saturday October 20th was a day of visits to family and friends across the valley in thanks and celebration. Everyone expressed joy at seeing Dad again. Grandpa writes, "The folks prepared a fine dinner which we ate on the lawn in back of house. Jr. and the other young folks played volleyball. We retired in good time and thus the long imprisonment was at an end, and I thank God for his deliverance."
Friendships made while POWs were truly lifetime friendships. Certainly these POWs had something in common that no one else could possibly imagine. They had a mutual understanding of the nightmares, the tendency to drink to forget their memories as POWs, and the extraordinary likelihood of shortened lifespan. Of course they weren't aware that a great many of them had what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. But they could and did commiserate with one another when they got the chance. Dad did maintain his POW friendships throughout his life. Indeed many of his POW buddies were looked upon as important members of the family.
Special Thanks to:
My Grandfather Wright P. Shill, Sr. for the daily journals he kept from the age of fifteen until his death, which provided invaluable records of the time Dad was a prisoner of war. He was a wise and exceptional man and I treasure his memory.
Dad's fellow internee and friend DN who thoughtfully furnished information and insight about Dad's time in captivity. I am forever grateful for his help for me, his friendship with Dad and his service to our country.
Dad's shipmate, fellow internee and friend HA for his contributions to my knowledge of Dad's activities as a prisoner of war. Again I am forever grateful for his help for me, his friendship with Dad and his service to our country.
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Story of Junior's Life
Captain E. L. Sackett's Story of USS Canopus AS-9
Center for Research, Allied POWs Under the Japanese