A remarkable tale of wartime survival and a search for justice

World War II veteran Frank Bigelow was forced to do hard labor in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
It’s been 55 years since the end of World War II — a long time since bombers flew into combat. But the fight is not
over yet. You may have heard about the veterans who were prisoners of the Japanese and are now suing because of that they say was done to them in captivity. But you may have not heard the story of one former POW with a score he still wants to settle. He’s had so many brushes with death, it’s a wonder he’s still around. He’s been going up against powerful forces his whole life.

"I GOT HURT pretty bad when I was a baby," says Frank Bigelow. "I got run over by a train when I was 20-months-old — by a Great Northern freight train. And I’m still here."  Ever since he was a little boy, Frank Bigelow has had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and living to tell about it.
       "I was sitting between the tracks," he says. "My brothers were supposed to be watching me and I got out the gate. And old Joe Lafrance comes around the curve, out of the east with a string of empties behind him, running about 75 or 80 miles an hour. And he said by the time he saw me he locked everything up on that train and the engine and 13 boxcars went over me. And I was underneath the 13th boxcar." The scar on his forehead reveals just how close he came to dying. "I got a guardian angel," says Bigelow. "I must have."
       At age 78, Frank Bigelow has had more near trips to the hereafter than anyone you’ll ever meet. Maybe that’s why he so obviously enjoys his life and his friends today. In fact, bullets, exotic diseases, and starvation couldn’t kill him. Neither could two years as a slave laborer, beaten and nearly beheaded, he says, by the masters he was forced to serve.
       "It is so hard to sit and tell someone who hasn’t been there about it," he says. "You can’t believe what happened. I’m sure you don’t." Omuta Camp Number 17. "Nobody knows where it was," he says. Or what happened there. Frank Bigelow’s story is not only about survival. It’s about justice he says is long overdue for thousands of World War II veterans just like him who became prisoners in camps you’ve never heard of like Omuta’s Camp Number 17, forced to do hard labor for Japanese companies with names we all know very well.
       "I was in the Philippines when the war broke out," says Bigelow. "And I’ll tell you this, if that war hadn’t broke out, I’d still be in the Philippines. I was born and raised in North Dakota and the tropics appealed to me pretty heavy."
       But it got pretty ugly pretty soon. "It got pretty ugly pretty fast, yes sir," he says. Seaman Second Class Bigelow had transferred from a battleship to new duty in the Philippines. Once again, his guardian angel must have been at work because the move almost certainly saved his life. The ship he transferred off of was the USS Arizona, sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, killing more than 1,100 men on board. Five months later, as the Japanese launched their final assault on the island fortress of Corregidor, Frank and another sailor were pressed into duty defending a beach. "They put us on a twin 50," he says. "That’s an air-cooled .50-caliber machine gun. I had never even seen a twin 50 before that. On the job training."
       The job didn’t last long. A spray of bullets just missed Frank, but killed the sailor standing next to him. "He took seven right across there," says Bigelow.
       Just hours later, along with thousands of other American and Filipino troops, Frank was taken prisoner by the Japanese.
       "They hauled down the American flag and they ground it into the dirt with their feet," he says. "And they urinated on it. And it just made you sick. And that was a horrible, horrible experience. But I’ll tell you one thing it did. It made me love my flag. It made me love my country. And I knew right then when that happened that I was going to make it."
       Frank Bigelow was 20 years old and half a world away from his home in North Dakota. His new home in the Philippines was a Japanese Army prison camp called Cabanatuan. It would test Frank’s luck once again. In the first months there, hundreds of prisoners died every day, most from disease and hunger. Others simply lost the will to live.
       "I’ll tell you how bad it was," he says. "When I was standing in line, I heard somebody holler ‘Bigelow’and I turned around and there was Ray Urquhart. He and I went to high school together. We went with sisters together. That’s how close we were. And he was in beautiful shape except he hurt his back. But in about two or three days, I noticed he’d stopped eating. He gave me his food. And then in a couple more days he wouldn’t even go get his food. And he was going down. And I said, ‘Ray,’ I said, ‘what are you doing?’ And he said ‘Biggie, I can’t stand it. I’m not gonna’ make it.’ And I cussed him. I said, ‘I’m going home and tell your old man that you are the 'yellowest’ — I’m not going to say what I called him — ‘in the world.’ And he raised up and wanted to fight me. And I tried that about three or four times. Finally, he just lay back and just said ‘you can’t do it anymore, Big.’ And then he died. Eleven days he lived. That’s how bad that camp was." Bigelow came close to not making it himself when he contracted malaria, jaundice, diarrhea, and dysentery all at the same time.
       "I remember I raised up and it took about all the strength I had and everything turned gray," he says. "I knew I was dying. And I started to go back and I said, ‘Bigelow, you’re too young to die.’" The only possible remedy was a pile of charcoal left at his side. He forced himself to eat it. "It stopped my diarrhea and I think it saved my life," he says. He barely survived, again. "Oh, it was awful close," says Bigelow. He had been in Cabantuan about a year when the Japanese announced that 500 POWs were needed for a work detail. He volunteered. "I wanted to get on that," he says. "I didn’t know it was going. I didn’t know where it was going, but I wanted to get out of that camp."
       After three weeks at sea in the hold of a freighter, Bigelow and the other prisoners found themselves in Japan in the city of Omuta. It was August, 1943. They were on their way to Prisoner-of-War Camp 17.
       "It was a brand new camp is what it really was," he says. He remembers his first impression of the camp. "This is not a bad deal," he says. But it didn’t take long to find out what the real deal was. Though housed in a prison camp run by the Japanese Army, Frank and the other prisoners were delivered each day to a coal mine owned by Mitsui, one of the biggest business conglomerates in Japan.
       "We were working there as POWs for the Mitsui company — slave labor," he says. How did he know it was Mitsui? "By the name on the front of it," says Bigelow. "At the mine it said Mitsui Mining Company and also, Baron Mitsui came to see us a couple of times at the camp and once or twice at the mine. I remember seeing him."
       Frank and his friend Harold Feiner, another Camp 17 survivor, say they were told that the mine they were forced to work in was so dangerous, it had been shut down for years. And if they died? "So what?" says Feiner. "I mean if we died, it wouldn’t have been a great loss to the Japanese. We were told, you work or you die. That was it."
       The two men remember long hours and short rations, usually tiny portions of rice and seaweed soup, barely enough to sustain a child much less grown men doing heavy physical labor. Bigelow says he was skin and bones. At 6-foot-4, he weighed just 95 pounds.
       Did he ever get a break? "Well, we were supposed to get a break every 11 days," says Bigelow, "but sometimes they would have what they call ‘taksanshigoto’ which means, work, work hard. And at one time we worked 27 straight days." Men were beaten he says. "Badly, badly," says Bigelow. "I was beaten myself several times. Just about everybody was." But he says one beating actually saved his life. It happened after he’d lost his temper in the mine one day and lashed out at a company guard. "I picked up a rock and threw it at him," he says. "And I didn’t mean to, but I hit him. And he turned me in for that."  When they came up out of the mine, Frank Bigelow’s guardian angel appeared again, this time in the form of an American-educated Japanese who liked him. "And he hit me about a half a dozen times with his fist," says Bigelow. "And I fell down. And I didn’t want to fall down, but I did, just to save my own life. I knew how close I was to dying for that. The next day he came down, he had an extra bento, which is a lunch box. He gave that to me and he said, ‘I’m sorry I had to hit you.’" Because if he hadn’t? "They’d have cut my head off," he says.
       Bigelow survived only to return to the mine where he lasted about a year and a half until the night a huge rock fell on his right leg.
       "Both bones were just snapped completely off," he says. "My foot was hanging out like that because my bones were so brittle from malnutrition, that they were just like old dead twigs. When they broke, they just broke right straight off." With few medical supplies, another American POW, Dr. Thomas Hewlett, improvised. He drove a sharpened bicycle spoke through Bigelow’s ankle to try and hold the shattered bones together. Eventually, it became clear it just wasn’t going to repair itself. "I got gangrene in it real bad," says Bigelow. "And finally, I said either cut it off or cut my throat or do something. I can’t stand any more of this. And he did what you call a guillotine operation which is, he had four guys holding me. And he sawed my leg off. He had a hacksaw blade and a razor blade. And he had some knives. I asked him before he started operating on me and I said, ‘doc, you got a drink of whiskey and a couple of aspirin tablets you can give me?’ He said, ‘If I had ‘em, I’d take ‘em myself.’ And when he got about halfway through my leg, Wendy Rowland was holding me. And Wendy was a pretty big, strong guy. And I said, ‘Wendy, hit me, will you please? Just knock me cold.’ Because I was in a tremendous amount of pain. And he drew back his fist and he said Biggie, ‘I can’t hit you.’ He said, ‘I love you.’ But he got it done." Showing his leg today, Bigelow still marvels at the job Dr. Hewlett did. But it’s what Hewlett did after the amputation, while re-bandaging the stump with rags, that he says saved the rest of his leg and maybe even his life. Without telling Bigelow, Hewlett resorted to a primitive method to battle a growing infection. He put maggots inside the bandage.
       "When he pulled those maggots out, he pulled all that infection out," says Bigelow. "And he saved my leg. He was one of the finest men and one of the finest doctors that ever lived. And I’ll never forget him for it."
       Bigelow’s days as a slave laborer in the coal mine were over. By the summer of 1945, the war was almost over, too, with Allied bombers filling the skies over Japan and Camp 17. "We knew that the closer they got, the more chance we had of making it," he says. "Send ‘em down, baby, send ‘em down. The more chance we had of making it. And that’s an awful thing to do, to get out under a B-29 and just beg ‘em to drop ‘em on you. But that’s what we did."
       One way or another, the end was near. On the morning of August 9, Frank Bigelow and another P.O.W. climbed out of a bomb shelter, gazing at the signature of a weapon they had never heard of, as they looked across the bay toward the city of Nagasaki. "My goodness, Biggie," he said, "they must have dropped a thousand-pounder over it," recalls Bigelow. "That’s the biggest thing we’d ever heard of. We didn’t know." He had seen the mushroom cloud. "Yes, we saw it," says Bigelow. "Right under it."
       Years later, as he battled a rare skin cancer that almost killed him, he would wonder if he’d been a little too close to the atomic bomb. Camp 17 was only about 30 miles from ground zero. Days after the bomb fell, the guards at Camp 17 disappeared. Japan had surrendered. Frank Bigelow had survived two years in the camp and had two reasons to celebrate that day.
       August 15 was his birthday. "That’s exactly right," he says. "I was 24-years-old." What was going through his mind as he walked out of that camp? "‘I’m free,’" says Bigelow. "I made it. And all I could think about was freedom and America."
       As he showed "Dateline" the Veterans’ Memorial he helped build in his Florida retirement community, Frank described his long journey home — how it started with a train ride through the devastation of Nagasaki. Getting off the train to board a hospital ship, Frank needed a little help. "There was a real nice-looking Navy nurse standing out there and I said, ‘Darling, can you catch me?’" he says "And she said, ‘Come on.’ I jumped out the window and she caught me right in her arms. The most beautiful woman I ever saw in my life. And I said, ‘Can I give you a kiss?’ She said, ‘You can do any damn thing you want to do.’ That’s the truth. And I was on my way home."
       Three weeks after hugging that nurse, Frank Bigelow was hugging the ground in San Francisco and calling his mother in North Dakota. "We were on a party line," says Bigelow. "So I called the post office which is about oh, a quarter mile from the house. And by the time mother got back, everyone on the party line was on there. And I finally had to cuss real loud to get all of them women off that telephone so my mother could hear me. And she said, ‘Son, I knew you were all right.’ And she said, ‘I wasn’t even worried about you.’ I guess that’s a pretty good way for a mother to be."
       If he could survive a collision with a freight train, the Japanese weren’t going to get him "That’s right," he says. "Mom, she just had all the faith in the world in me."
       Bigelow spent about a year in a naval hospital and underwent another operation on his stump. He got his first artificial leg in Philadelphia in 1947 at the naval hospital.
       He even survived another freak collision with a moving train, this time driving into the side of one in the middle of a whiteout blizzard. The car was in worse shape than Bigelow. He got away with minor injuries.
       In February 1951, Frank Bigelow became the first World War II veteran to receive a government check for his time in captivity — $1,198 — a dollar for each of the 1,198 days he spent as a prisoner. The money came from Japanese and German assets seized at the beginning of the war. Bigelow’s check was enough to pay off the loan on a new taxicab, but he says it hardly made up for being forced to work in that Mitsui coal mine.
       What does he think the company owes him? "What do they owe me?" he asks. "They owe me a leg. They owe me a couple of years of life and they at least owe me miner’s wages for what I did. And I think they owe us an apology."
       How does he feel toward that company today? "I detest ‘em," says Bigelow. Of all the hardships and horrors Frank Bigelow has survived — from the freight train that ran him over as a child, to the skin cancer that nearly killed him later in life — it’s his experience as a POW that still eats away at this normally good-natured man.
       "It was wartime," he says. "As prisoners of war, we were supposed to be treated humanely. We were supposed to be fed. We were supposed to have decent places to live. And we were supposed to have decent medical attention. And we had absolutely none of that."
       Former POWs like Bigelow have tried to settle their grievances with the Japanese before in the courtroom. But time and again, judges in Japan and here in the states have rejected the veterans’ claims. For nearly 50 years, something has stood in their way — the 1951 peace treaty the United States and more than 40 other nations signed with Japan. In it, the U.S. waived further claims for reparations against the Japanese. And not just government-to-government claims, but those brought by U.S. citizens, as well.
       "What that treaty did without any question or doubt," he says, "it took our civil rights away from us, just like that, completely."
Bigelow says signing that treaty while giving former POWs like himself just a dollar a day for their suffering was a slap in the face. "We were completely forgetten," he says.
       Today, lawyers for the veterans argue that there is language in the treaty that could open the door for legal action. They’re now trying a new weapon — a California law originally meant to help victims of Nazi slave labor seek compensation. Bigelow, his friend Harold Feiner, and dozens of other survivors of the Japanese labor camps see the statute as a way to sue some of the biggest, richest companies in the world — Mitsubishi, Nippon Steel and Mitsui among them.
       Does he really expect these companies to come forward and compensate him and apologize for this? "Yes," says Harold Feiner. "We expect them to own up and pay up." If their lawsuits go to trial, the veterans hope some haunting photographs taken by Terence Kirk will help them make their case. Kirk is an old Marine who says he still suffers from the effects of diseases he contracted while a prisoner of war. He still burns at the memory of his treatment as a slave laborer for the Japanese. Kirk was forced to work for another Japanese company, cutting up scrap iron. Like Bigelow, he says he and the other prisoners in his camp were also starved, beaten, and almost died from disease.
       Kirk describes the photos: "The man on the right has got wet Beri Beri and the man on the left has a case of malnutrition and I don’t believe any of them lasted for a month." Kirk took six pictures, using a simple pinhole camera he built out of cardboard boxes and tape. A Japanese-American who worked at the camp smuggled in photographic plates and developed the negatives. If either man had been caught, execution would have been certain.
       "I wanted the American people to see what the Japanese were doing to their boys and brothers, husbands, and fathers," he says. "That somebody should know this." Kirk hoped his photographs would be used as evidence against the Japanese who had enslaved him. When the war ended, more than 4,400 political officials and members of the military were convicted of war crimes. But the industrialists whose companies used POWs as slave labor were never tried. Terry Kirk’s photos were never used.
       "I gave the Army a set, the Navy a set, and the FBI a set of these pictures," he says. "And I waited for 38 years to see what would happen. But nothing happened." What’s more, Kirk says the U.S. military even discouraged him from talking about his ordeal.
       In fact, after liberation, he and Frank and other returning POWs were told to sign a form forbidding them from telling their stories without official clearance. The purpose was to prevent the disclosure of sensitive intelligence information, but many of the men took it as a gag order. "In so many words, keep your mouth shut," says Bigelow. "Keep it under your hat."
       But keeping it under his hat has kept the emotions inside of him festering. Now, with or without help from his own government, he is determined to have his day in court. Is it fair to hold these companies today responsible for what happened so long ago?
       "Certainly," he says. "Time doesn’t mean, make anything better. Time don’t change the things that actually happened."
       The Japanese companies argue that time has changed everything. For example, a spokesperson for Mitsui says that while it has the deepest sympathy for the veterans, it is not the same company that ran the coal mine. That old business conglomerate was broken up by the victorious Allies and the companies that bear the Mitsui name today, including the Mitsui mining company, were formed after the war was over. "I don’t care if they were reorganized, reformed a hundred times," says Bigelow. "They’re still the same, they’ve got the same name, they’re the same company."
       That’s something the courts will have to decide. If the past is any indication, the veterans face an uphill battle. But to Frank Bigelow, tough spots are nothing new.
       Officials at the State Department say though they recognize the suffering and hardship veterans like Frank Bigelow endured, the peace treaty settled any claims against Japan and there is no justification for reopening the question of reparations. Bigelow told "Dateline" if this current effort fails, he’ll give it another shot. As he put it, "There’s no question about it, I’m pretty hard to kill."

 Frank Bigelow by Ed Jackfert

            Past National Commander Frank H. Bigelow passed away July 9, 2003 after a short illness.  Frank was born August 5, 1921 near Fero, N.D.  He enlisted in the U.S. Navy on September 24, 1940.  His first duty was on the ill fated battleship U.S.S. Arizona which now is memorial to those that were killed in action on December 7, 1941.  Frank volunteered for Asiatic duty and subsequently served on the sub tender U.S.S. Canopus as a communications yeoman in Submarine Squadron 20.  He served on Bataan until the fall of Bataan and was fortunate enough to be transferred to Corregidor for more action where he served with J Company 4th Marine Regiment on Gary Grail until the surrender on May 6, 1942.  He spent a few days in the 92nd Garage in Bilibid.  From there he went on a detail to Bataan with some of the men from the 192nd and 194th Tank Battalions.  Soon, returning to Cabanatuan, he was selected to be transported to Japan on one of their hell ships.  His destination was Omuta, Fukuoka and Camp 17 where he spent the next one year and six months as a slave laborer doffing coal for the Mitsui Company. 
In the latter part of 1944 while working in the mine, a large rock fell on him and crushed his right foot and angle.  His leg had to be amputated below the knee.  The camp doctor, Capt. Hewlett, although he had no medical equipment except a mess kit knife and a hacksaw, amputated his right leg.  It took four men to hold him during this operation.  The war ended for him on August 15, 1945 and he was transported through Nagasaki to the dock area where he boarded the aircraft carrier Chenango and later, the U.S.S. Rixey to San Francisco.  Frank was transported to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital where they revised his stump and fitted him with a new leg.  The loss of the leg did not hinder Frank in his pursuit of a decent living.  He worked as a truck driver and later operated a bar.  He enjoyed life to the fullest extent possible and displayed his knack of dancing the jitterbug at our national conventions. 

            Frank became a member of the ADBC and was very active with the group.  He later was elected national commander and subsequently became part of a coalition (which included Harold Feiner and Lester Tenney who were in Camp 17 with him) seeking redress from the Japanese industrialists that utilized them as slave laborers.  He was interviewed on national television several times, testified before the Senate Judiciary committee, was featured in a story by Parade magazine and was always sought after by the media about his story of mistreatment and slave labor while a prisoner of war of the Japanese military.

            Perhaps, a note from his friend Lester Tenney best describes Frank.  “Occasionally along life’s way, you meet someone you will always remember.  Maybe it’s his strength, or his humor.  Maybe the twinkle in his eye shows the kindness in which he treats you.  Or he just shows that he cares, cares for you, cares for what he believes in, and trusts your decisions.  But whatever it is, he becomes very, very special in your life, and contributes much to your happiness.  Maybe he is a helping hand when you need it, a comforting shoulder to lean on when things don’t go just right.  But he would always show respect for our opinions and appreciates your effort.  Such a man was Frank Bigelow.  He was a source of pride, always a willing participant, and he was always sought after for his insight into difficult situations.  Once in awhile someone comes along and touches our lives, leaving us with moments that stay in our hearts and minds forever.  My life has been enriched because Frank believed so strongly in our friendship.  I will always be grateful for his friendship.  My hope is brighter now, my faith stronger, and my respect for life runs deeper because Frank has given everything he touched so much more meaning.”

            About 250 veterans, family and friends attended a memorial service for Frank Bigelow on July 21 at the Cloverleaf Farms Community Center in Brooksville, FL.  The event was organized by Beverly Thomas, Commander of the Cloverleaf Veterans Association, of which Frank was an active member.  Representatives of local chapters of ADBC, American Ex-Prisoners of War, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Disabled American Veterans also participated in the service. Frank’s pastor at the Nobleton Community Church, the Reverend James H. Hughey, led prayers and reflected on Frank’s life and strong faith.  ADBC National Judge Advocate Harold Feiner and Florida chapter Commander Nick Hionedes shared in delivering the official ADBC eulogy.  Both added personal remarks: Harold recalled meeting Frank for the first time on Bataan in February 1942 when Frank sideswiped Harold’s truck; Nick remembered attending an ADBC convention some 15 years ago, and being astonished when Reg Leighton said, “See that tall guy jitterbugging on the dance floor?  He has only one leg.” ADBC National Chaplain, the Reverend Robert Phillips, also attended the service, as did ADBC members Reg Leighton and Florida chapter Secretary Byron Kearbey. Frank’s son Charles Bigelow spoke, as did daughter Kelley Bigelow Hartman and grandson James Hartman.  Frank’s granddaughter Jennifer Schiadone as well as his great-granddaughter Victoria McCoy were also present, as were Charlene’s son Walter Ploettner and grandson Walter Jr.; and her daughters Victoria Brown, Valerie and Virginia Ploettner, and April Lucas.    Credit: QUAN Sept. 2003

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