Harold G. (Snuff) Kurvers


Harold G. Kurvers was born on 18 May 1918 in St Paul, MN, and with the exception of his military service is a lifelong resident of the city. He grew up on Rice Street, and attended Washington High School until 1936. After this he worked a number of jobs before being drafted into the US Army in April 1941. He completed basic training at Ft Lewis, WA, and joined the 194th Tank Battalion as a medic. In September 1941 this unit was posted to the Philippines, to Ft Stotsenberg, north of Manila and near the USAAF's Clark Field. With the Japanese attack of December 1941, Harold's unit was forced to retreat; he was eventually captured at Bataan, along with thousands of other American personnel. He survived the infamous Bataan Death March and a brief stay at Camp O'Donnell (April - June 1942) before being sent to Cabanatuan, Philippines, where he remained until October 1944. Like all prisoners, Harold suffered from malnutrition, poor treatment, and disease. 
        In October 1944, with the US invasion of the Philippines, all prisoners were moved from Cabanatuan; Harold spent two months in Manila's Bilibid Prison before being herded on 13 December 1944 with 1600 others onto a prison ship, the Oryoku Maru, bound for Japan. A day later, the ship was sunk by US aircraft, with the loss of more than 300 prisoners; Harold and others were transferred to another prison ship, the Enoura Maru, and, when that was damaged by US aircraft, to the Brazil Maru, which finally docked in Japan in late January 1945. Just 400 of the original 1600 prisoners were still alive.
        Now in Japan, Harold was sent to a prison camp, Fukuoka #17, on the southern island of Kyushu, where he labored in a coal mine. Conditions were difficult. Harold remained here until the war's end in August 1945, when he was evacuated to the US. He was discharged in early 1946, but remained until the end of 1946 in Glen Lake Sanatorium, MN, recovering from tuberculosis. 
        Once again a civilian, Harold and his wife Dorothy (married 1946) settled in St Paul and raised three children; Harold worked 36 years for the US Postal Service, retiring in 1983. 

Biographical information and all interview content © Thomas Saylor, 2001-02

See Photos Link at end of this page       Harold's Comments on the Bomb 
 

I lost a dear friend - Harold Kurver's Obituary - click here       

The following is a fascinating interview:

Interviewee: Harold “Snuff” Kurvers
Interviewer: Thomas Saylor, Ph.D.
Date of interview: 18 March 2002
Location: living room of the Kurvers home, St Paul, MN
Transcribed by: Linda Gerber, August 2002

Edited by
: Thomas Saylor, January 2003

Interview key:
T = Thomas Saylor
H = Harold Kurvers

T: This is the 18th of March 2002 and this is the interview with Harold “Snuff” Kurvers.  First, I want to thank you very much for taking time out of your day to speak with me.  Thanks a lot.

H: You’re welcome.

T: Snuff, can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up?

H: Yes, I grew up in St. Paul, the Rice Street area. That’s a well-known area in St. Paul.  It was a learning experience.  It helped me get through where I was.  In that area, we used to say, “if you couldn’t take him, don’t mess around with him.” That kind of thinking helped a lot later, when I was a POW.

T: Learning to think on your feet?

H: Yes. It was an education. 

T: Did you attend school and high school in St. Paul, too?

H: Yes.  [In St Paul I attended] St. Bernard’s, a Catholic grade school, and I went to Washington High School for half a year. Skipped a half and went a half.  Then broke a leg and then quit.

T: When you left high school, when was that?

H: In 1936.

T: What did you do with yourself then?

H: I was working different odd jobs.  Trying everything.  I didn’t play professional ball, but I played ball in the summertime. Looking for odds and ends.  Different jobs.  It was tough at that time.  There were a lot of places that had signs “No Help Wanted.” They had signs there: “No Help Wanted.”  I did a lot of different things just for short periods of time.  Then finally in 1940 I went to work for the railroad. My Dad worked there, and I used to ask him when there’s an opening, but he didn’t want me to work there. He thought it was a miserable place to work.  But finally, after complaining to him about not being able to find anything, he told me they were hiring.

T: You worked a number of odd jobs until 1941, when you joined the Army.  Or were you drafted?

H: I was drafted, on April 14, 1941.

T: How did you react to getting a letter that you were to be drafted?

H: I accepted it, I knew it was coming up.  I didn’t relish it, I knew it wouldn’t like it, and I didn’t. That regimentation, I didn’t go for that.

T: Was it a way, in a sense, to at least have some kind of stability?  Was that a welcome for you or would you just as soon stay out of the Army?

H: I would just as soon have stayed out.

 

T: How did your loved ones respond to you joining the military, your grandmother and your Dad?

H: Oh, my grandmother, I grew up with her, but she died before I was drafted.  My Dad didn’t care for it too much, but he knew.  You were drafted and it was like a duty and I accepted it as such.  I didn’t care for it but I didn’t rebel. 

T: You just showed up when they told you to.

H: Yes.

T: Were did you go for basic training?

H: We were inducted at Fort Snelling [in Minneapolis].  We were there about three days and went to Fort Lewis, Washington.  I joined the 194th Tank Battalion.

T: When were you sent to the Philippines?

H: September. We left sometime about September 6, 1941.  We left Fort Lewis and we got there on the 22nd, I think.  These dates are approximate.

T: So before the end of September you were in the Philippines.

H: We got there about the 22nd. We pulled into Manila Bay on, I believe, the 21st or 22nd, a nineteen day trip.  I saw the city.  I said, “I’ve seen it.  Let’s go back.”

T: What was the general mood among the guys that you were with, that some kind of war was coming or not?

H: Just wondering, I think.  There was nothing definite.  I don’t think we thought about it that much. In fact, we had a … Bill McKeon, two days before the war erupted he said, “They wouldn’t dare, they wouldn’t dare!  We’d wipe ‘em out in three weeks!” He heard about that the rest of his life.

T: When you were in the Philippines, did you think about why we had been sent to the Philippines?  After all, you were a tank battalion.

H: Yes. We wondered what we were doing over there.  That terrain over there, we wondered, what were tanks going to be doing?  But not being Army intelligence, not thinking about what would be proper over there, I think we just accepted it.

T: What was camp like in the Philippines? You were at Fort Stotsenberg, right?

H: Fort Stotsenberg, yes.  It was pretty good duty.  We had a siesta from noon until three because it was ungodly hot there. I said before, I was a medic, and we were supposed to get some training, and there wasn’t hardly any training whatsoever.  It was terrible.

T: Were you expected to do the job of a medic even without the training?

H: Yes. We were line medics.  Any casualties or anything went to a hospital.  I think they were called base hospitals.  Most of our cases we had when we were on Bataan were malaria cases.  The injured, we didn’t take care of any of that in a line hospital. If you were with a unit when somebody got hit, I suppose you would, but we weren’t with them. We were just living on base here, taking care of the guys that came in with malaria, dengue fever, whatever.

T: So very different than treating casualties.

H: Yes.  Most of mine was as a driver, driving ambulance.

T: So you did a lot of transporting?

H: Yes, that’s what I did.  We had four crews. It was just a short time before we went overseas that they formed that medical detachment.  They drafted us draftees into that because the national guardsmen didn’t want any part of it.

T: You didn’t volunteer for overseas duty, did you?

H: No.

T: On the 7th of December 1941, the Japanese attacked not only Pearl Harbor but many other locations in the Pacific, the Philippines included.  What were you doing when you heard the news that the Philippines was being attacked?

H: We woke up.  We heard that Pearl was being hit.  Being across the dateline we were hit the same day. To us it was about six o’clock in the morning that Pearl was hit. That makes me think it was about six o’clock at night at Pearl, wasn’t it?

T: Pearl was hit on Sunday morning.

H: Was it morning?

T: Yes, Sunday morning.

H: Yes, that would have been six o’clock in the morning to us. So at noon [local time] we got hit. We were on Clark Field. The tanks and that were around Clark Field. I can remember when planes started coming over.  We looked up and talked about a beautiful formation.  Which planes are they? All of a sudden bombs started dropping.  We knew—it was Japanese.  So we got hit the same day as Pearl, but the notoriety goes to Pearl.

T: All the notoriety, yes.  These were Japanese carrier-based aircraft attacking you?

H: Yes, or maybe it was land-based aircraft.  Like it was six hours later.  Our planes were up, went over Formosa, and some of the guys heard this in camp, and thought it might be rumors.  But later on, I talked to other guys, and no, it was true.  They wanted to drop but they couldn’t get orders to drop. Here Pearl had already been hit, but war had not been declared.  Bombs dropped.

T: Right.

H: They didn’t do it, but they could have. They landed.  They came back in right about the noon hour, and they wiped out our air force.  Just came in. We wound up with, I don’t know, a handful of P-40s or whatever. 

T: How did you react personally to the war suddenly being a real thing?

H: I don’t know.  It was a scary feeling.  One incident: we had a fella with us that was a college graduate.  He had a degree in journalism. I was kind of envious of him.  He was about the same age [as me].  He had all this going for him.  And the first day of that bombing we hit the dirt.  This guy, with the degree, didn’t have moxy enough to go down.  And we were screaming at him. I thought, “Books aren’t everything.” It’s strange that I should remember that.  We scattered around. It’s something different.  I was carrying a .45 [caliber pistol].  You’re not going to hit a plane with a .45, but you’re doing it anyway, you’re firing it.

T: Is it just sort of an automatic response?

H: Yes.  You may as well go after them.

T: So I take it that the ground fire was pretty ineffective against the planes?

H: Yes. I saw a couple planes go down, but I don’t know what got them. I have no idea.  I don’t think any of ours got up there.  I can’t remember if any of our planes got up there or not. We were eating at the time.  The planes were all…. I don’t know if any of them were camouflaged or not, I  can’t remember that.  But they wiped us out that first day.

T: Did your unit then move from positions on Clark Field to somewhere else?

H: Yes. We never got back. Most of us, almost all of us, never got back to that area again.  Everything we owned was in that place. We don’t know if it even was destroyed. We never got back to that. We went to different places—went up north in Luzon, went down south to Well.  They were trying to cover all these areas, with tanks going to different places where there were supposed to be landings. We lost a couple of tanks in A Company, a couple [from a unit that came from] Brainerd [Minnesota], they lost some tanks on that. You’d had to talk to those guys who were in the line outfit to give you better detail.

T: What was your experience at this time as you moved away from Clark Field.  What are you doing and what’s going through your mind?

H: I don’t really remember.  A lot of wondering what was going on.  What’s happening? You’re put in that position.  I don’t know if you even have time to think.  It was really chaotic.

T: Were Japanese aircraft occasionally bombing your position where you were?

H: Yes, oh yes.  We got back on Bataan.  They were shelling quite a bit, and bombing. Not getting much sleep. Pretty much blurred all the time. Every place we went, I don’t remember digging that many foxholes because everyplace we went there was… Let me tell you, as we moved back into Bataan they were already dug so we were using them.

T: Was the lack of sleep a problem?

H: Yes. We were kind of beat. The big thing was lack of food. The day the war broke out we went on two meals a day, and shortly after the first of the year [1942] we went on two meals of rice. So all of us, most of us, lost weight. I weighed about a hundred and fifty-five pounds and, I would guess, I wasn’t near a scale, but I would guess I lost about twenty-five, thirty pounds. All of us, the fatigues we had, there wasn’t a uniform then per se, they were just hanging on us. The ring I wore would almost fall off [my finger].

T: American troops were finally surrendered in early April.

H: On April 9th 1942, yes.

T: What was the condition of the troops from your perspective about that time before the surrender?

H: The thoughts?

T: The condition, the thoughts perhaps, or just the mental and physical condition.

H: We were tired, tired and beat.  The thoughts . . . It was up in the air.  We didn’t know what was going to happen.  Rumors fly like crazy at times like that.  We were thinking that they were going to take us to Manila. Even before the march, we wondered what was going to happen.  Then we sat talking about if they were going to take us to Manila and we were going to be freed, you know, exchanged for enemy prisoners or whatever.  It was wild thinking—rumors like crazy.  Well, not so much there, but [later] in camps.  Rumors were just wild.

T: So before the surrender there was this kind of realization that the surrender was going to happen?

H: I don’t know if we did think that way. I think the guys thought they were going to weather it out, you know, until help came.  Our friend [General Douglas] MacArthur promised thousands of planes, hundreds of ships were coming in.  It didn’t happen.

T: When the troops were surrendered, how did that impact the mood of people around you?

H: Disappointed, sad. They were down.

T: Was there fear as well?

H: No, because we didn’t know what we were going into.  If we’d have known what we were going into there would have been fear, but we had no idea.  You’d never been in that situation before, so you didn’t know what to expect.  It was, I don’t know, like some of the guys later on said, I don’t think at that time they were ashamed of it, because later General King insisted, “You guys did not surrender.  I surrendered you.” But some guys are still carrying thoughts that they gave up.

T: Kind of a guilt thing?

H: Yes.

T: How about for you personally?  Do you remember the actual surrender?

H: The only thing I remember is Colonel Miller saying that they had surrendered, and what to do was to destroy anything that [the Japanese] could use.  All of the vehicles, everything.  Probably a bad move.  Maybe we could have used them instead of marching out of there. They say a march, but it wasn’t a march.  It was a walk out of there.  The conditions we were in, you don’t march—you walk.

T: Did everyone walk out together?

H: We were in groups. Speaking for myself, I wasn’t with the same group all the time.  If I felt tired and I saw somebody on the side, another group that was taking a rest and I knew somebody in that group, I broke.  I looked around at the Japanese guards.  If they weren’t alert to that, I’d rest with them. I don’t know how many days.  Some of the guys say how long they were on the march, but I can’t tell you.  I think six, seven, eight days.  I don’t know because it’s just, if they broke . . . I told you about growing up on Rice Street.  I noticed right away that the Japanese, if somebody goofed, they went after the person closest to them.

T: Not necessarily the person who goofed?

H: No, that’s right, and I spotted it. That’s Rice Street education. It’s common street smarts.  I noticed that and I was always away from them. I was in the middle.  I never got hit once on that march, not once.  I got a few after that, but it was unavoidable. 

T: On this march what memories or what incidents remain in your mind?

H: Being hungry and thirsty.  I remember a sugar cane field.  A bunch of us broke into that and got by with it, because usually when we broke out of ranks they shot.  But we broke, and broke off some of that stuff.  I got some sugar cane. Vividly remember that, sucking on that.  You could feel the energy.  In that condition, I don’t know if you’re a healthy person, but in that condition I could feel that energy surge through me.  It would give you that extra shot. 

T: Do you suck the juice from the cane?

H: We were sucking on that, yes.  You broke it off and then sucked it.  I can only remember that one section there, too, it didn’t happen all the way up.  It was just that one area.  That’s what I remember about it.  I remember a guy by the name Harry Heikila from Superior, Wisconsin.  They have water shooting out of a spout, or whatever it is, and I remember breaking for that and he went to that. The Japanese went after him and swung his rifle.  The butt of the gun hit him on the elbow and that elbow came out three-quarters of an inch or an inch.  He just stared at them and said, “You son of a …” If the Japanese had heard, I think he would have shot him right there, if he’d understood that.  He cussed him out like crazy. I can remember one of the cities, the first place they were going to feed us.  Some guy tried to get two of them.  They broke the ranks and we didn’t get anything.  I can’t remember any other place being given rice.

T: Were you fed regularly on the walk?

H: No. No, I can’t remember.  That’s one thing in my mind. I remember that one place, and I can’t remember any other places that we were being fed.  We dug up some sinkomas. They were a vegetable.  When they’d rest us someplace, some farm things that sinkomas . . . I can’t think of what it would be like.  It was real juicy. It was underground, and we dug it up.  We ate that.  And water was at a premium.  We just had a cupful of water, or what was in a canteen. I hid a sack full of rice, not a sack full, a sock full of rice, a guy named Harold Van Alstyne and I, and he hid some soup extract or something.  We put that in there.  We built a little fire and cooked that up one night.  

T: What was more important, do you think, a sense of physical strength or a sense of mental strength at this time?

H: That’s a toss up.  You had to have that mental strength to go too, you know.  Yes, you had to have that.  To keep going. And I don’t . . . See, I bank on God so much.

T: At the time, was your faith an important thing?

H: Oh, yes.  Always.

T: How did that provide strength for you personally?

H: I don’t know.  I just had that.  I don’t know where I got it.  It was there, all the time.  I did a lot of begging, said a lot of prayers.  Praying made up prayers.  I don’t know how anybody got through that without [faith]. 
            I knew one fella when we were up in Fort Lewis.  We’d get up and go to our services, you know, different ones, and he was giving us a little heat.  But when we got into Bataan, I hit a foxhole during the shelling and bombing,   probably all at the same time, and he hit the same hole with me.  And he said, “Snuff, I believe there’s a God.  Would you teach me to pray? I’m ready.”  So I said the Lord’s Prayer, and he said it with me.

T: So in that situation you remember that he had a different attitude.

H: Yes.

T: The Bataan Death March—were there some guys who couldn’t make it?

H: Yes, some of them.  They talk about the deaths and that.  We were one of the first groups out of there and I saw my share of bodies on the side and, I don’t know, I think some of them were killed.  I only had one experience where I thought a guy was trying to get away.  And a Japanese guard walked him, there was kind of a hill, they walked around there.  I heard the gun fire and [the Japanese] came back alone, so I had to think that’s what happened to him.  God spared me seeing any other ones.  I saw a lot of bodies, but not the actual shooting of them.  And I saw . . . there were gullies alongside the road with water running through there, so if you were thirsty, you went over there and drank some of that, and another half block there’d be a body.  I don’t know if the water went through [the corpse], but it went by him. 

T: At the conclusion of that march, were people kept together in one camp, the survivors?

H: We went to San Fernando, that was the name of the place I was in. A gathering place for all the guys before they shipped us out. I don’t know how many days we were there, but it was a mess, too. Just laying around with the other guys.  Every place you stopped you saw human feces. 

T: There were no toilet facilities?

H: No facilities.  And it seemed that they threw up a fence around where you were, just so you couldn’t get away. If they would rest you, it would be in the sun; it would never be in a shady area.  It was always in the sun when they stopped.  We had one group for one stretch there, I don’t know how long it was really, with guards on bicycles. We were supposed to keep up with them.

T: They were riding and you were walking?

H: Yes. Kura! Kura! Hiako. Hiako. “Hurry! Hurry!”  Real fortunate.  The last leg, I was really in a bad way. We got some guards that put the sickest, lamest in front so we couldn’t….nobody could go faster than those people. That was kind of a break.

T: For those guys especially, I guess. They didn’t get left behind.

H: Yes.  I can’t use the language on tape, but . . . I conked out. I was laying on the side at a rest break, and Harry Heikila and one of them, a guy named Pickel,  they wanted to sit with me. “We’re going now.” I said, “I’m not going on.  I’ve had it.”  They said, “They’re going to kill you.”  I said, “Go ahead and let them kill  me.”  But they picked me up, and I don’t think I was a burden on them.  I had my arms over their shoulders. I don’t think they were carrying my weight. I was just more kind of embracing them, and they helped me the last six or seven miles, whatever it was. 

T: This is the guy from Superior, Wisconsin?

H: Yes. He died. There’s a guilt feeling there.  He died within a month after we got to [Camp] O’Donnell.  Pickel, I don’t know whatever happened to him.  He might still be alive, I don’t know.  Having helped me . . . He did get me out of trouble. It wasn’t that they killed him. I think he had malaria.

 

T: Malaria killed some but not all who got it, right?

H: Yes.  A lot of them had that cerebral malaria.

T: Camp O’Donnell was the first real stop, first permanent stop?

H: First permanent stop.  From San Fernando we took a train, packed so you couldn’t move. Some guys said, I don’t know if it ever happened, some guys said [other guys] died in there standing up. They couldn’t even drop.

T: It was that full of guys?

H: Yes, it was that full.  And a lot of the cars were closed, with no air coming in. But the car I was in, it seems to me the door was somewhat ajar.  I kind of remember that.  But I was back [in the car,] I wasn’t near the door.  I don’t know how far that was, but then we got off of the train and walked about seven kilometers from Capas to [Camp] O’Donnell.  Capas was the name of the town there. 

T: Were all the survivors then taken to Camp O’Donnell?

H: Yes.  Those that made it, yes, they ended up at O’Donnell.  Some of those guys volunteered to get out of there in a hurry.  I was one of those people who didn’t volunteer for anything. I didn’t put myself up for anything.  I don’t know if it was wrong or not, because with so many dying . . . We had thirty, forty a day dying a day.

T: How long were you in O’Donnell?

H: I was there from the day we reached O’Donnell until, I think, the middle of June or July [1942].  Some time in June.

T: Were guys being slowly taken out of O’Donnell and sent other places?

H: Yes. You volunteered for different details.  They referred to them as details.   This guy I’m reading a book on, he went on a detail of dismantling vehicles and sending the metal back to Japan for their war efforts.

T: You ended up at Cabanatuan.  You volunteered for that detail?

H: No. We were, I don’t know how many of us there were, we were sent there that time.  We went over there, and thought it  would be a better deal.  We got there…

T: Was O’Donnell a bad deal by this time?

H: Oh, yes. It was right from the word go.  Guys had no water there—I think twice  a day, an hour in the morning  and an hour in the afternoon. A continuous line.  People waiting in line to get water. Some of the guys who weren’t able to get there had their buddies, the one next to them, going up there with their canteens.  If they had a canteen. There were some guys that had bamboo. I don’t know if you’ve seen bamboo, about like that. (cups hands) They’d hollow that out and make like a cup and get water in that. 

T: Anything that would hold water.

H: Yes.

T: Was there a problem with overcrowding or with food at O’Donnell as well?

H: Yes. There were between ten and eleven thousand men that surrendered and I think about a thousand died. So there were nine or ten thousand in that camp.

 

T: You said guys were dying left and right at Camp O’Donnell.

H: Yes. Thirty or forty a day died. With us it was twelve hours a day, the Filipinos it was twenty-four hours a day.  They were in a camp across the road from us, up a ways.  I don’t know how far away. But it was a continuous stream of bodies going by, being carried by the people that were on this detail.  They carried the dead away from there.

T: So our prisoners were detailed to take the dead corpses out?

H: Yes. It was a mass grave that they buried them in.  It wasn’t very deep, either, because . . . I keep thinking of the people that want to bring their loved ones back, and I suggest you don’t, because you don’t know.  Some of them were not wearing dog tags.  I wasn’t strong enough to be on any of those details, those burial details.  But they said that it was mass graves, and they weren’t buried that deep.  Rainy, suddenly wash the bodies up again.  I never was out there.

T: You mentioned your health being not so good in O’Donnell. 

H: I had beri beri quite a bit. Legs were swollen up and I remember, you get very tired.  At night, we slept on the ground, and I would lay with my legs above my head, and the next day I would get up and no one would recognize me.  All that water went into my face.  I think a lot of people had heart problems because of that. So far, fortunately, I don’t think I’ve had any.

T: When the word came for you to go to Cabanatuan, how did you feel?

H: I don’t know.  It seems like you’re a zombie. You take anything as it comes. You just don’t even think about what’s going on, in my case.  I can’t speak for anybody else, but you just take it.  You’re going to go someplace better. But it was better after a while. The guys from Corregidor were over there who had fared pretty well throughout the war as far as eating, and that so when we got to the camp, they looked great. 
            In fact, there was this fella named George Grul. I saw him, he got hit on Bataan. He had some shrapnel in his butt and stomach, and he was in the camp.  He looked pretty good because he’d in the hospital.  He wasn’t on that march.  And he looked pretty good.  In fact, he gave me a shelter half.  You’ve heard of a shelter half/  Two guys in the field would have each have a shelter half. Well he had one half of that, and he gave it to me, so I had something to lay on. Then he came down with diphtheria.  They put him in the hospital area. He was in a bad way, so I gave it back to him.  He died about three days later.  I might just as well as kept it.  It was lost completely then.

T: People died on a regular basis. Did this make it difficult to make friends or have people to depend on?

H: I don’t know.  You were kind of on your own.  I don’t think you depended upon anybody.  You were mostly on your own, I think.  It was sad to see [people dying].  Again, you become hardened to that.  It bothers you. It did me. I can’t say that for everybody, but it did bother me.  I’m thinking, “Am I going to be this way the rest of my life?”  No compassion.  It was strange.  We went to view a body of a person that was caught trying to escape.  His head’s caved in and his eye was gouged out.  He was dead.  [The Japanese] took us shack by shack to go through there, to view that body, and show us what was going to happen to us if we tried to escape.  As we were going through there I remember the guys saying, “Look. He’s got a new pair of shoes. I wonder who’s going to get those?”  That’s a strange thing to hear when you’re viewing a body like that.  Where’s a man’s heart? (pauses three seconds) It’s gone.

T: Replaced by a sense of keeping oneself alive?

H: I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. It’s just a feeling that I don’t care for.  Like I say, I speak for myself.  I was thinking, “Geez, this is terrible.”  You’re tossing those bodies around. I’d worked in a hospital area and was lifting those bodies just like a piece of log, you know.  And that gets to you.  Well, it didn’t get to you, but you wonder: are you going to be this way the rest of your life?

T: So you felt in yourself, too, a sense of compassion or a sense of humanity kind of drifting away?

H: Faded.  It bothers you.  It did me.  And I’m sure anybody that’s got a heart is going to be bothered.  I can remember, getting back home, about five of us went to a movie.  It was a tear-jerker.  We came out of there and our eyes were all red and it was a terrific feeling—to know that you had that ability to cry.

(1,B,488)

T: Almost a confirmation that it didn’t leave forever?

H: Yes.

T: Very good addition you made there.  That was after the war was over?

H: Yes, that was after, when we were in Frisco.  About five of us went in.  We were going to go to a bar, but it was too early, so we went to a movie. In fact, we weren’t even in uniform.  We went in hospital garb.

T: That’s a very interesting point. Were most guys pretty much affected the same way, do you think?

H: I don’t know.  I didn’t discuss that that much.  I guess they would be, if you had a heart.  If you had that compassion before, I’m sure it would be.

T: If you kept your sense of compassion in a situation like this you could go nuts, couldn’t you?

H: Yes.

T: Snuff, what kind of work were you doing in Cabanatuan?

H: I was working on a farm.  To begin with, I couldn’t do anything. I was about eighty pounds.

T: That’s skin and bones.

H: Yes. I was in a building with a group of people that were not on the march.  There were just two of us that were on the march that were in that building and this guy by the name of Baker he lay there in a fetal position all the time. I’d  bring  his rice  to him. He’d push it away.  He said, “We don’t feed our dogs this.”  There’s another guilt that came out of me.  I tried to force him to eat, but he wouldn’t.  Instead of destroying it, I ate it.  It’s the guilt thinking that, well, maybe I could have gotten him to eat. I fought to get him to eat, but he didn’t want to eat. 

T: Did he die in the hospital?

H: He died there, yes. 

T: Did you feel guilty eating his food?

H: Sure. I brought it for him, not for me, with the full intention of getting it into him. I tried to get it into him, but he wouldn’t eat. I was able go to the mess hall and get it.  He wasn’t, so I brought it back here.  In fact I think there was a sergeant,  Paddington, we used to call him “Pop.”  Everybody forty years old was “Pop,” you know. But anyway, he was from Idaho. If I’d been him that assigned me to that,  I’d have made sure that he got that food and brought it back, because he could not get out of there. 
   
         At that time they didn’t have a hospital per se.  It wasn’t set up there.  He could have been put there.  It was a guilt feeling.  A lot of them say, “Why? It was just going to go to waste anyway.”  And then I was fortunate, I kept God with me. In that shack was a mess sergeant and he said, because of the condition I was in, he put me in the kitchen.  That was a guy by the name of Tony Falletta.  He was tall and skinny, and he’d mention about it, and he’d say it in broken Italian.  He spoke perfect English, but he would go into that jokingly. He said, “Soon you have a big ponzo [slang: stomach] like that,” he said.  And it was true—after I was working a while I was eating properly, not getting any more than the rest, but I was eating more than I had been eating.

T: Which was next to nothing at first.

H: When you first started out you got the ponzo here, the stomach, you know.  Big, strong. It worked out that way. I worked there quite a long time.  Then when that broke up I was working on a farm.  And then we got shipped to Japan.

T: So between the middle of 1942 and the time you went to Japan at the end of 1944, that’s over two years. You were at Cabanatuan most of that time?

H: All the time.

 

T: Bilibid Prison in Manila was just a stopover?

H: Stopover. I think we got down there in either September [1944] …the first bombing was September 19th or 20th or something like that.  [The Americans] hit Luzon.  Then they moved us down to Bilibid and we were there in October sometime, until December 13th [1944].  That’s when we got on that first ship. 

T: What other kind of work did you do at Cabanatuan?

H:  That was it.  Just in the kitchen.  Like I say, God was with me.  Then I went to the farm.

T: What kind of work on the farm?

H: Pulling weeds out of rice paddies and different things.  Want to hear a funny story?  We had a colonel, O. O. Wilson, we called him “Zero.”  Lieutenant colonel.  Full colonels were out; officers were not working at that time.  Up until then, and there was such a shortage of people, that they started working some of the officers.  They came up with, we called it the Dainty Defecators Detail.  A fifty gallon drum that was cut part way.  They had punched holes in the sides of this barrel, big strands of wire.  They carried this . . .

T: Load of crap?

H: This load of crap on bamboo strips, like that. (both laugh) They had [the bamboo strips] on their shoulder.  You’re walking with that thing, and you’ve got to be out of step.  If you misstep, that barrel flops back and forth.  You have to be out of step. They’re going south, into a south wind, and these two guys are in step. And that thing is going back and forth.  He came to our area, and he had from head to toe sprayed with shit.  They set the bucket down and he sniffs around.  He said, “I don’t know what it is, men, but I smell shit someplace around here.”  He’s got thirty-five gallons of it and he’s sprayed from head to foot.

T: He must have realized . . .

H: He knew. Oh, yes. He was a very humorous guy. (laughs)

T: Let me ask you about humor.  How important was humor?

H: Such humor was important, yes.  You didn’t realize it until after you were out.  But there wasn’t that much to laugh about, either.  There was, but you didn’t realize it at the time.  Later on you think of the humorous things that happened.  I don’t know if I laughed when he said that or not, but I remember how humorous that was.  They put on some shows there that were humorous.  We laughed at that.

T: Were there guys who had trouble laughing or had trouble with a sense of humor?

H: Yes. And none of those came back, I don’t think.  Because everybody I know, everybody that I know has got a sense of humor. We were always kidding. They talk about that as a joke.

T: That sounds like it was a really important part of the day to day existence of keeping your head on?

H: The laughter, yes. And we must have been laughing, because so many things….things that referred to the Japs and things…….there was one….There was one Jap they called Horseshit….

T: Among yourselves you called him that.

H: Yes. He knew it.  “Watachewa” he’d say, and he’d point to himself.  “Watacha.”  Horseshit.  We go like this (point to shit). One day they went by some pile of manure and they told him, “Watachewa. Horseshit.  Onaji.  The same, you’re the same.”  What?  And he worked that guy over. They should never have told him.  Some of the guys told him, well onaji means the same thing.  So they pointed to that pile of crap on the road, and to him, that’s the same.  He found out what he was being called all this time.  He didn’t know what it was, and this idiot tells him, which wasn’t very bright on his part.

T: That doesn’t sound like the brightest thing to do.  Snuff, what about the treatment from the Japanese?  Could we say there were good Japanese and bad Japanese?

 

H: Pappy Green used to say that the only good one was dead.  [The Japanese] killed their own in that camp, too.  They had the training area in the back there.  I remember we had one guy that we referred to as Fishface.  He was training a bunch.  I think these guys were Formosans. 

T: They were ethnic Chinese?

H: Yes. They were from Formosa [which was occupied by the Japanese during the war,] and they were being trained there.  There was a little pudgy guy.  He  was about a lap and a half behind the rest of them doing the laps around that field. This Swordfish comes up to him with a saber  and cuts him. The next thing we see smoke coming out from where they cremated their bodies. Pappy Green says, “There goes another good one.”

T: They were killing their own people?

H: Yes. I don’t say that much, but that one was.  We think it was, because the next thing we saw smoke in there. So they were cruel to their own people. In fact, I [told that story one time] on radio.  One time a guy calls in and said, “Well, they were cruel to their own people, too.”  I said, “That didn’t make it any easier for us, because if you’re getting beat and I’m getting beat, it’s not going to help me any at all.”

T: Did the guards change often or did you see people for quite an extended period of time?

H: These were all has-beens, I think, that they were using as guards.  We had a two, Little Speedo and Big Speedo. Big Speedo was really a good one. If he had you on a detail working something, for instance you were picking up stuff and you bypassed a pile of debris that you were supposed to be picking up, he would go over and get the shovel and pick it up and bring it out and would not say anything to you.  If another guard would strike you or belt you or whatever, he would go over and nail that guy. So he was good.  In fact, after the war was over, there was a, I’m trying to come up with his name . . . anyway, he survived the ship and he came back, and he couldn’t come back to the States yet.  He was wanted there [in the US].

T: An American?

H: He was an operator, by the name of Ted Lewin. He opened up a place, I can’t remember the name of the town, in Japan or China or where ever it was.  He got Big Speedo as a bouncer. [This American] was wanted here for murder or something.  He was from Chicago.

T: So he couldn’t come back here.

H: No.  At least that was the talk in camp.

T: So you would differentiate?  Do I hear you saying that the Japanese were not all bad, and neither were they all good?

H: The only problem was that we didn’t know who we could trust.  Sometimes they could give you a cigarette, then the next thing kick it out of your mouth, so we didn’t know if we could trust them all the while.   We had some in the mine [I worked in when I was in Japan] that didn’t bother us, but other ones did.  I don’t understand their culture.  Just because you couldn’t understand their language, you were belted for that. We couldn’t do that.

T: Because you couldn’t understand the language they would hit you?

H: Yes. They’d say something.  The first thing you learned is wakaki nai, which is “I don’t understand.”  I’m way ahead of time here [with this story, by the way]. I’m in Japan.  We were in the mine drilling and a guy was guiding his jack hammer at my shoulder.  He wanted to see how far we had been in there so he could place the [explosive] charge in there.  He came and said something to me and I said, “Wakaki nai,” and he said it again.  I said “Wakaki nai.” He brought a fist up from the floor just as far as you could. In fact, he hit me hard, and I didn’t go down. I thought I was back in my Rice Street backyard.  And then he took my hand and put it over a vent on the side of the jackhammer.  I could see his reasoning for that.  There was some oil shooting out of the side.  It was hitting him in the face, and he wanted to look in there to see how deep we were with that, how deep we had drilled.  Now he should have done that right away. Just put it over there.  I could see why he would want that because that oil was shooting in his face.  If it was reversed, that’s what I would  have done.  I’d not belted him.

T:  How do you think the Japanese  perceived prisoners?  What did they think of them?

H: I don’t know what they thought.  To begin with, they said that we were cowards.  They don’t surrender, that they said.  There were some that did surrender, but it was a disgrace if they surrendered.  Probably there’s a difference.

T: Can you say something about the food at Cabanatuan? What was the typical diet?

H: Rice. A lot of rice. At one time I think, if I’m right, Filipinos were allowed to send rice in to us, and we got an abundance of it.   So you get built up to where you’re pretty strong.  But rice is all water, and if you get hit with dengue or malaria, then you’re almost down to nothing in a few days again.  If the fever is extended a couple of days, you go down. Nine months, ten months, whatever it was, we got enough.  We started playing volleyball there, playing softball.

T: So conditions were getting a little better?

 

H: You know the mess kit?  When that started coming in, the bunches of rice, you could hear guys night and day, pounding.  The mess kits were that deep (holds fingers about an inch apart).  Bend it out and make hold more.  It was almost like a bowl.  It was that deep (holds fingers closer to two inches apart). Real thin, the metal would be real thin. They pounded it out.  Because they’d get it loaded up with rice.  You could get all you wanted.

T: So you had your own mess kit?

H: If you were fortunate.  You gained it by attrition.  But you had to keep track of it. 

T: Was there other food as well besides rice?

H: There was a weed soup. Then we got commodie, it was almost like a sweet potato, and things like corn, we got it when they didn’t want it.  To cut that corn off the cob, you’d have to sharpen your knife.  We soaked it and made hominy out of it.  It had to be soaked for a couple of days it was so hard.  All I can say is you’d have to sharpen your knife.  And there was a sinkamas, another kind of a vegetable.  Mostly weed soup.  We’d get piles of it.  It was moldy, almost like that (points to a green item in living room).

T: Any fish or any kind of meat?

H: Later on. Not fish.  I think we got fish in Japan. No, we got caribou.  Not caribou like ours, it’s like a cow.  You’d see a piece, a couple pieces in your soup or whatever.

T: That was something that didn’t happen every day.

H: No.

T: Was there enough food?

H: You were hungry all the time. Even when you were full, you were hungry.  There was something your system was crying for. Rice doesn’t cut the mustard.  Fills you up, but lacks something.  You get filled up, but there’s a craving for something.  Your body is craving something, whatever it is.  Even though you’re full, there’s something you need.

T: Were there rumors about how the war was going outside the camp?

H: Lot of rumors, but you didn’t believe them. Because so many…somebody would start a rumor. We talked about this [when I was on local television,] on Channel 2. I don’t where you got it from.  You’d start a rumor at one end of the building, and the guy would run to the other end and see how it had changed by the time it got there.

T: So you learned really not to trust what you heard?

H: That’s right.  As an optimist, you were always hoping it was true, if it’s good.

T: But you didn’t believe it, you hoped it?

H: Yes.  You were on the edge on that.  I used to go to one guy who was from Brainerd, A. B. Thomas, he was in a bad way. Every time I’d hear something good I’d go to him and he would just light up.  I knew it was helping him. 

T: So you didn’t mind telling him because it seemed to be helping him a little bit.

H: Yes. He would just grin. “Is it really true?”  “Well, they say, you know.”  Then we found out that some of the stuff about the war going on was true, because there was a radio in camp someplace and they were getting that.  Where these Americans were coming up.  But we didn’t know that until later on, that [the rumors] were true.

T: When you moved from Cabanatuan in 1944 the Americans were attacking the Philippines.

H: They were bombing there at that time I left there.  I just missed the [American] landing by . . . let’s see . . . I think we left there about the 28th  of  December [1944] and I think they hit Linguyen, troops came there about the 7th or 8th of January [1945].

T: So right after you left Manila.

H: Yes. Right after we were up at Linguyen. 

T: How did you get from Cabanatuan to Bilibid Prison?  That was your next step.

H: That was a truck.

T: Did you work at Bilibid?

H: No. Just held there. Didn’t do a thing. Nothing.

T: What were the conditions like there?

 

H: I’d have gone bananas in that place.  I don’t know how some people coped in there.  They had all the bad cases, the injured, legless, armless, whatever. They were there the entire time. There was a high wall there. Maybe if I’d been right there from the word go, maybe I could have done it.  Being able to see around, though, and then wind up in that place . . .

T: Claustrophobic, was it?

H: I still have it.  Bad.  I wasn’t there long enough to build it up there, claustrophobia.  It was aboard that ship [going to Japan] or in the mine [in Japan] that it hit me. Because when I go to church now, I have to be near a door.  I don’t want anything behind me. I usually try to get behind kind of a pillar.  I always want to know the easiest way to get out.  I know about three ways to get out of a place.

T: That has stuck with you?

H: Yes.

T: Were you like that before you went into the service?

H: No. Gosh no.

T: That’s one of the reasons why maybe flying doesn’t agree with you.

H: No. I don’t get on a plane.  I was thinking, if I could be the pilot, that I think I’d be all right. If I had control of it.

T: You went from Okinawa to the Philippines after the war on a plane, right?  How was that?

H: It was a strange one.  I didn’t feel comfortable.   We were up in the air and going down, and one of the guys said, “Geez, I hope we go further than we did last time.” I said, “Why?”  He said, “We had to go back.” 

T: What kind of plane was it that flew you from Okinawa?

H: A C-47 I think it was.

T: So a big transport plane.

H: Yes.  And some guys dropped out of one of them. That’s what I heard.  They were screwing around with the bomb-bay or something.  Somebody screwed around and opened up.  There was a person who had his back broken in the mines in Japan.

T: He survived all that stuff and then that happened.

H: We got to talking about that on the ship we were on.  When we were in Japan [after the war ended in August 1945, the Americans] dropped food to us.  Five cases of fruit cocktail. We didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what it came out to be. Five cases of fruit cocktail broke loose from the chute and came hurtling through the air, and they screamed, “Get out of the way!” Rowland, a guy by the name of Rowland, he was going through a malaria attack at the time, and you’re not with it then.  It caught him and tore his leg off. The guys went to see him and he said, “Well, I guess it’s not everybody that can lose a leg to flying fruit cocktail.”  And he died a couple days later. Secondary shock.

T: Was it while you were in Bilibid Prison that you learned that you were to be taken to Japan, or did they even tell you that?

H: We knew we were going to Japan.  I think that’s where we first learned it. When we left Cabanatuan to go to Bilibid, I don’t think we knew about it then.  I think it was when we got into Bilibid [that] we knew we were going to make the shipment. We knew about it because they would say we were going to leave tomorrow, and then the planes would come in.

T: American planes or theirs? 

T: So the ironic thing was that the Americans were bombing our ships, actually our prisoners.

H: One thing about that I heard afterwards, and I thought it was terrible if it’s true, they said they had somebody inside the prison that was with intelligence.  A rumor now is that he threw something over the fence to whoever was working, “Don’t bomb the next ship going out of here.  It’s all prisoners of war on it.”  And  word came back, This is rumor; we have to sink everything.  And to me, if that’s true, why would [the Americans do that] at that stage of the war?  What could the Japanese be sending to Japan that is going to be aiding them in furthering their efforts?

T: What did the Americans figure it was, maybe munitions, or soldiers?

H: At that stage of the war?  I could see it at the beginning, but at that stage? And then kill your own people to stop whatever they were sending, to avoid them getting it to Japan.

T: How did that make you feel at the time?

H: We didn’t realize it until later, until we were told about that.  I didn’t hear it in camp but later on I heard about it.  I thought, “Geez, that’s a hell of a way to ….” That late in the game of the war they had it going for them.  How much could that have changed the face of the war?

T: In other words, the Americans might have known those were prisoners on those ships?

H: Yes. I think that’s a terrible thing.  And also, before we got aboard that ship, they started running women and children and elderly Japanese, taking them back to their homeland.  I thought, “Hey, that ship is okay,” because they let the Americans know that they were transporting  women and children.  So we’re going to be all right, they’re not going to hit us. Next day we got it.

T: The first ship you were on was the Oreyoko Maru. Did you move right from the prison to the ship?

H: Yes, we walked.  I don’t know how many miles it was.  It wasn’t that big a deal. To the port area.

T: You got right on the ship then?

H: Yes.

T: What were the conditions like on board that ship?

H: Terrible.  Packed. Just packed.  Shoulder to shoulder, belly to back.  They went mad that very first night.  Guys were cutting throats, sucking blood.

T: So you were standing up?

H: Standing up. Again, God was with me. I was fortunate.  I was in the smallest group and our hatch cover wasn’t completely pulled, so we were getting some air. But the forward and after holds were just packed. Nothing.

 

T: No air coming in?

H: They were the ones that went berserk. 

T: Obviously no facilities, no water?

H: No, there was nothing.

T: It makes you wonder.  The Japanese must have known that this was going to cause ….

H: Oh, yes.  I can’t remember where it was I read it. It said, they didn’t care if we died. (pauses three seconds) They didn’t.

T: Can you describe, from your own perspective, the conditions on the ship and  what was around you, and what you saw or experienced?

H: Jammed in.  Just screaming and hollering.  I say they were [screaming and hollering]. Maybe I was doing it, too, I don’t know.  We were in a smaller hold, a smaller group of people.  We were shoulder to shoulder and just screaming, hollering, wild.

T: Guys going just berserk, it sounds like.

H: Yes.

T: Was there a sense of fear or anger?  What emotions seemed to be most present?

H: Not anger. I don’t know if it was fear. I can remember on the first bombing [of this ship].  Come to think of it, we had enough room because I remember being on my knees and asking God to get it over with.  Kill me.  I got on my knees and begged. This is hard to believe, but when you’re thinking that way, fear is gone. You want to die. Fear is gone. It’s all over then. But through the bombing I didn’t care.  But the next raid, again, the fear is back again. It’s the truth.

T: So it goes away at the time, but it returns again.

H: Yes.  I didn’t go to that again, the prayer to get me out of that.  The fear was there. I don’t know what I did. (pauses three seconds) It’s a helluva thing to go through.

T: Did the second bombing raid sink the ship? Is that what happened?

H: No. [The American planes] had to come back and sink it.  The first and second one just, just saw a lot of harassing and bombs dropping.  They had a direct hit on the after hold, blew out the side of the ship.  I think there were between three and four hundred killed in that first raid.

T: How many guys were on board this ship?

H: Sixteen hundred and nineteen [1,619]. There were a number of English [POWs] with us there that came up from Singapore, or wherever they came from,  that was with us. You can imagine how a person would feel.  They came into Bilibid and they were emaciated, dirty, filthy, everything about them.  And they told us what they had gone through, the holds in ships.  They told us about it.

T: They had been on some ships.

H: Yes. They were telling us about it. They were telling us this story.  Now you’re looking [today] at a healthy person.  I’m telling you, and it’s hard for you to believe it.  They were telling us that story, what’d they’d been through.  Then we went through it, and only then did we realize what they were talking about.

T: Even though they told you, you almost couldn’t fathom it?

H: No. Couldn’t fathom it.  And the condition they were in.  Feces, everything.  Bearded and dirty and emaciated. And they were telling us.  We said, “Why, sure.” (disbelieving tone) It’s terrible.  When we went through it, only then did we realize what they were talking about it.

T: It’s interesting from someone in your shoes, who had been through the prison experience for several years.  One wants to think you would be able to believe their story, and yet not?

H: You believe them, but you don’t realize what they’re saying, how bad, what it is, until you go through it yourself.

T: How many days were you actually on the Oreyoko Maru before it was sunk?

H: I think it was the third day we got off of that.  Then we were up in a tennis court.  I think we were on either two or three days.  It was sinking at the time—it was sunk after we got off.  They took us off.  We went off on our own. We had to dive overboard.  Everybody was diving overboard. 

T: So you knew the ship was sinking.

H: Yes, we knew.  It was on fire. 

T: Can you describe that experience ?  You were in a hold somewhere and you ended up in the water.  Can you go those steps of how you got there?

H: Yes. We were in the hold of the ship. We knew it was on fire.  We knew it was sinking. The feeling was there—you knew it was going down.  The guys started going up the ladder, to get topside. It was a rope ladder, and this Jap started shooting those guys. They dropped back in the hold and [the Japanese] pulled the ladder out. We were at a loss.  What in the hell is going to happen now?  And then a ladder comes down.  We think [at the time] it’s the Japanese, but I told you [earlier] who it was.  It was Lou Kohls.

T: An American who had got topside?

H:  Yes.

T: How did he get out there?

H: He was in another hold. They were able to get out. Some of them got out. In fact, some of them got out the side of the ship.  There was a hole blown in the side, and some of them went out through that.  He heard us screaming and he looked down there ,and he saw us down there and saw that ladder there, and he dropped the ladder. He told me that in Pittsburgh, I don’t know what year it was, 1990 or something like that.  It’s the first time I knew that it was an American that did it.

T: Did everyone who was in your hold get up the rope ladder?

H: That I know of. We didn’t get hit down there so I don’t know if anybody died down there during the session we were there.  Anybody that could walk got out of there.  For me, I looked over the side and oh, God, it was terrible. I told you about [earlier]] that baseball. I looked over the side and I think  I might have had the  canteens at that time already.

T: Just for the tape, you told me earlier that you had picked up some canteens on the deck, realizing that those would be buoyant.

H: I thought they would. I put them on, through my belt. I took the cap off, unscrewed it, and put that chain, and then screwed the cap back on the canteen. And I had one on either side.  Then I looked for the debris of the ship and that’s when I jumped for that. Flailed away. We went in, we got almost all the way in, and there was a chaplain that was going out trying to help some of the other guys in that were in the water.  There was one off in the distance, a lifeboat, I could see them. They were rowing to shore, but they probably weren’t strong enough to keep it going as fast as they should have. From shore [the Japanese] machine-gunned them. Killed them.  I guess they killed them.  They shot at them. I don’t know what happened to them, but I know they were shooting at them.  I didn’t see them killed, but I know they were shooting at them.  And you could see that they were pulling toward shore, not toward the sea.

T: How far from the shore were you?

H: Eighteen miles. (laughs) No, really only three hundred yards.

T: When you can’t swim, it’s a long ways.

H: Yes.  The same way with the height of that ship [when I was standing on the deck].  I looked down and it was about eight miles there, too. I don’t know, it was a pretty high ship.  It looked like a pretty good ship.

T: It was a freighter?

H: No, it was rigged for passengers.  It was a big one.  It looked like a good ship anyway. It wasn’t white, and it had pretty good light colors and I said, This will help us, too.  I thought they would let the Americans know that they were transporting, not us, but women and children.

T: So the Japanese civilian passengers were also in the water?

H: Yes. Well, I didn’t see any of them in the water. What I saw was on the deck.  They were dead, on the deck. I don’t know anything about the Japanese civilians, whatever happened to any of them.

T: What happened to the POWs who got out of the holds and in the water?  You swam or somehow got to shore?

H: Got to shore. We went up kind of a wall.  They had a tennis court up there.  They herded us into that.  There was about twelve hundred of us then.

T: So three or four hundred didn’t make it out, it sounds like.

H: Yes. I found out later, after I got home, there were two of them that went to the opposite side of this bay and actually got away.  They got to the guerillas that were active in the Philippines.

T: They managed to survive the war then. That’s the exception, it seems.

H: Yes. Two.

 

T: From this tennis court you ended up on another ship.

H: Yes. First they took us to San Fernando, no to (***).  I wound up in a theater, and another group was in the jail there.  And they took a handful from each group, and there’s where I learned not to ever envy anybody anything. I was so envious of those people they took away from there. Going back to Manila, not continue on this journey. Later on, after we got home, we found out they took those fourteen, fifteen guys to the cemetery right near there and beheaded them.  I thought they were going back there.

T: What was the reason for that?

H: Japanese.

T:  You couldn’t see a reason why they might have picked those guys out?

H: They were a different cat altogether.  At Cabanatuan.  Even in the first, in O’Donnell, they preached to us how they had hated us for years and years.  We kind of took it in stride.  It was war, you know.  But they hated us for years and wanted to win the war if it took a hundred years.  But in Cabanatuan I really got a full taste of their culture. I saw their film.  They showed us a propaganda film of, I don’t know if it was Nanking, but it was some large city, where Japanese soldiers were throwing babies up in the air and catching them on bayonets.

T: They showed a film of this?

H: Yes. They showed us.  Did you see or hear about that?

T: No, I don’t think so.

H: I would never say that to anybody, because I didn’t think anybody would believe that kind of cruelty.  There was a young girl over on Hartford St. [in St Paul] here that went to school with my son.  I hadn’t seen her for years, and I stopped to talk to her and she mentioned  that.  I said, “Did you see that?” She  said, “Yes.”  I said, “They showed us at camp. I hesitate to tell anybody.  Who could believe it?”  Now they’re starting to believe, I think.  Another sad part of that is that the Formosan and Japanese guards who were watching with us were laughing.  They laughed at that.  That’s a different kind of cat.  How can you laugh at a baby being caught on a bayonet?

T: Snuff, the second ship you were on also did not take you to Japan.

H: No, it took us to Formosa.  We got hit with something.  In fact, when I’m reading those books [on these hell ship journeys to Japan,] there’s nothing mentioned about it.  I called this guy in Missouri and said, “Joe, were we hit on the second ship?” I knew he was on the second ship. He said, “You’re goddamn right we were hit on that ship.”  That was the Brazil Maru.  That’s what they’re saying.  Like I say, I never knew the names. It’s hard for me to believe that the second ship and the one we got into Japan were the same. It’s hard for me to believe it, because we were hit on the way to Formosa, and I didn’t know if we were in dry dock long enough to repair that.  It was a hole in the ship, just on the waterline, like a picture window.  I’d never seen that and I couldn’t dream anything like that and I couldn’t dream about the list of the ship.  We were in a kind of weakened condition, but it was an effort to walk from starboard to port.  I can’t remember which side was listing.  But it was an effort. We got up there and walked around the bay and onto the Inura Maru.  We’re on there one or two days and got hit on that. That was crippled completely.  It wasn’t sunk.

T: It wasn’t moving in the water, though.

H: No.  We had to get off of there.  Then we went to that the one we had gotten off of. If that’s true, we were on the Brazil Maru, and we made it the rest of the way on that. 

T: Were the conditions on that ship any better or worse that the first one?

H: The second one we had all the room we wanted, because there were only about two hundred of us.  We thought we were separated from the masses and we were going live high on the hog. We didn’t get anything for a couple days from them.  No food or water for the first couple days, I think.  Then they gave us some hardtack, green and moldy crap.  We thought we were lucky because we got away from the masses.  We saw all the barges go to that one ship and we were separated.  I know we got hit on that thing because of the bounce. You can’t imagine stuff like that.  Especially that listing, too.  Why would I imagine that?  There’s no reason to imagine that.

T: Did you begin to think that you might not make it to Japan?

H: No. Optimism rules, you know.

T:  And you did make it to Japan.  Earlier, before we began taping, you said you arrived around the 1 January 1945.  Do you remember disembarking from the ship?

H: Yes. I remember them coming aboard the ship and spraying us with crap, and they ran a tube up our butt.  I don’t know what that was for.  

T: Did a liquid or powder or something come out of it?

H: I don’t know.  Just run a tube up there, that’s all I can remember.  Whether they shot something up us, or were taking something out to exam or what it was.  Then they took us off the ship and we went into a warehouse or something.  I don’t know what the hell it was, but I can remember water in big barrels.  Breaking the ice and just loading up with that.

T: So it was cold in Japan?

H: Oh, yes.

T: This was a definite change of weather for you.

H: Yes.  All the way up we were freezing.  We were in groups.  What we did on that, maybe five or six of us would get together and we’d lay down and change every night, we’d change positions.  We’d sleep huddled up together.   We’d lay on our sides, belly to back, five or six in a group.  We would be on our left side, and after a bit switch to our right side.  The steel deck of a ship is not too comfortable.  This was on the ship.  Going [from the Philippines to Japan] on the ship. 

T: It got cold in Japan?

H: Oh, yes.  We were getting real cold.  I wouldn’t have known the temperature, but the guys from northern California . . . Now we’re talking about Camp 17.  As far as weather conditions, they said it was comparable to northern California.   You get snow.  When I first came around I looked out one day and we had snow, and there were guys walking out there with no socks on.  You had straw shoes, walking out there.  I thought, “What the hell did I get into?”  Walking in snow.

T: When you got off the ship how long was it before you ended up at Camp 17?

H: Right away, I think.  They put us on trains and went up there right away.  I don’t know the time in between.  I have no idea. 

T: Sometime in January you were there?

H: Right away.  I’m pretty sure it was the 1st.  And if we got off the [ship on the] 1st,  it was a day or day and a half.  They brought us in there.  Big mistake—they should have fed us after.  But they fed us right away.  When we got into the camp they gave us some food.  Then they had us go bathe ourselves, and then they gave us new uniforms.  Japanese uniforms.  Green.  I pulled them up and I shit  right in them. (laughs) They should have fed us later.

T: Was dysentery or diarrhea a problem in most of these camps?

H: Yes. A lot of dysentery.  Amoebic.  Some of it killed you. 

T: Do you just learn to live with dysentery and diarrhea?

H: Yes. You’re running off to relieve yourself, and they had places to go. Most of us would try to keep from having an accident.  I found out that if you lay on your right side, it seemed to work with me.  Maybe it’s a psychological thing, I don’t know.  But I lay on right side.  You could hold it a little longer.  But if you lay on your left side, it’s coming out!

T: What were the conditions like in Camp 17?

H: Twelve hours a day working. The food was the same.  Three meals a day. Rice, weed soup.  Now and then, I don’t know how many times, not very often,  we’d get dog.  I said, “Dog coming through.” Carcasses coming through, into the gate with the truckload of dogs. Got some fish up there, dried fish.  Not a steady thing.

T: More food than before?

H: Just to keep you alive.  But always hungry.  There was some vitamin that you need, I suppose, to keep you from being that way.  Rice didn’t.  [After the war one time,] in a cafeteria downtown, I was in the line.  It was cafeteria style.  A woman says to the man ahead of me, he had ordered chow mein, “Do you want rice?” “Oh, God no,” he said, “I was dropped behind the Japanese lines and for three days I had nothing but rice,” he said.  “Do you know,” and he turned around and pointed at me, and he stopped right there.  He stopped right in mid-sentence.  Three days?  I had it for about thirteen hundred days.

T: So you recall that there was never quite enough food.   The treatment by the Japanese guards in Camp 17—how did that differ from the Philippines?

H: We weren’t around them that much.  They would come floating through.  We didn’t have that much contact.  The head honcho there was a miserable person.  I remember we got hit.  American planes were bombing.  We had eight American shacks.  They were the ones that were hit—the Dutch, the English were not hit, but ours were hit. [Our shacks] were burned out. 
            This is what I was going to say about this commander. They had us out in a field to count off, I don’t know where the hell we were going to go.  But they did some looting.  Got some cigarettes.  They had Red Cross parcels and stuff in the air raid shelters.  They had it buried in there.  Well, when this happened the guys were looting. We got some cigarettes and this guard…we were sitting waiting to be counted off.  Al Kaseri, a guy from New York, and I were sitting next to each other and we had a cigarette and we were smoking a cigarette.  That was forbidden in camp, not allowed.  You had to be around a pail of water.  And I could see the reasoning for that, because those shacks are flimsy, they’d go up in a hurry. 
            The head honcho, the camp commander, he walked by and there was a guy in the front row smoking.  He walked on by and Al spotted him coming toward us. He said, “Stop and put that cigarette out.”  I said, “No, he just went by a guy [who was smoking].”  He said, “Put the damn thing out! He’ll kill you.”  I didn’t. I took it in my hand and put it between my legs and sitting there and had it cupped.  He walked behind, went around, and he went up to that front guy and he just kicked him right in the face.  Boy, did that cigarette of mine go out in a hurry then. Whew! Right now. That’s so cruel.

T: So there was cruelty much as you described before.  Not always, but it could come at any time.

H: Any time. In the mine, too, there was a lot of that going on.  You have a belt.  I don’t know what kind of material it is, but it had a flaw in it.  I didn’t realize this at the time but it was over three-quarters of it.  About a quarter of it was intact.  I had this mine lamp on.  It has a cord on it, and it’s going up to a belt on the back.  It’s kind of a heavy battery. It was on this belt.  I was walking along and all of a sudden that battery belt went like that, it fell onto the ground.  This guy comes up and he didn’t work me over, but he gave me a couple of shots. How could I help it? 

T: Was there a sense of wanting to strike back, or did you know that you had to take it?

H: [Back to my early years on ]Rice Street—if you can’t take them, don’t mess with them.  And you can’t take them [the Japanese]. I mean, you could have belted that guy, he’s not that big, but you know under the circumstances what’s going to happen.  Why take the challenge? You had to be a real hothead to . . .

T: Hotheads didn’t last too long, though, did they?

H: No. One guy, the one I told you [before we began taping] that was breaking arms and legs. Stacy. Redhead. There was something about that them, I don’t know, they feared him or what.  Somebody would hit him, he’d belt them right back. He got by with it.  We couldn’t figure it out.

T: Can you tell again, on the tape, about the breaking of the arms and legs. What’s the deal there?

H: Well, the guys who were, I don’t know if they were tired of working or concerned about cave-ins, but they’d had it.  And there were two guys that I know of. There might have been more, but there were two that I know, Stacy and a guy by the name of Humphry O’Leary. He was half Filipino, half Irish-American.   I’m not sure what they were charging, but it was at least a lesser amount for an arm.  It was an easier job apparently.  Like three or four rations of rice to break the arm and  TAPE ENDS

 

T: So to break an arm he charged?

H: Yes. Three or four rations of rice [for an arm], or six or seven for a leg. I can’t remember. They would pay to have that done.  And they would never have to worry.  There was more arms than legs.  I only saw a couple legs.  I don’t know if that was a result of the individual, either.  It could have been a mine mishap, you know.  There were a lot of problems, cave-ins and that.

T: People with broken arms didn’t have to go down and work?

H: No, they didn’t have to, but they worked them in camp. 

T: But that was easier work.

H: Yes. Cleaning up, doing different things, whatever they had to do there. We had one guy, the count offs, they’d call you off. I don’t know where they thought we’d go, but they’d take a count.  One time, this is before I got there, they came up one man short.  They go hustling down to the mine looking all over.  Here they found the guy down there.  These things that you build to brace the ceiling, the Japanese called it umaki, I think that was the name of it, it’s like a corncrib on the corners.  They fill that up with lumber on the side and brace the ceiling.  He was sitting on the ground, making small ones.  When [the Japanese] recognized somebody had mental problems, they didn’t bother them.  I don’t know what the reason for it was, but they always pointed to their head and said bioki, that’s sick. And they’d point to their head. So they brought him into camp and kept him in camp.  They put him to work in the kitchen and he walked around carrying a broom all over.  He was carrying that broom all over.  Even when they’d count off, he’d have that broom, at attention.  Wacko. 
            That went on for about a year or so I guess. Then two weeks after we thought the war might be over, we weren’t sure yet, he says, “I wonder if it’s time to get rid of this goddamn broom?” He’d been putting on an act for whatever the time was.  Even his buddies thought he had gone bananas.

T: Were there guys that mentally couldn’t take it?

H: Surprisingly few.  There were only a couple of them in Cabanatuan that I know of.  There was one guy right before the war, the last message he got, he got, we didn’t know it as a Dear John then, but later on they were called Dear John letters.  He got one.  She was jilting him. The first camp he was in, he tried to commit suicide.  He took a hatchet, whatever he had, hit himself across the head and across both of his arms.  After they healed he had trouble with his hands.  They put him in a what we call a nut ward.  Actually was only a couple of them that were really flaky. 
   
         Most cases were cerebral malaria cases.  It affected them while they had the fever, but they came out of it. We had a couple of them in there, three or four that were really bananas.  They put him in there and he was in there about three or four months and they thought, well, he’s all right.  Our own guard would take these people who were supposedly off the track, take them out to a place to relieve themselves, a big hole about twelve or fourteen feet deep. They would urinate in that out by the fence.  So they’d take them out there.  One day he dives in there to commit suicide, so the guards had to fish him out.  They were madder than hell. So they put him back in [the nut ward], kept him in and wouldn’t let him go out again.  Another three or four months go by and they thought he was all right.  He did it again. Then finally they think well, he’s all right now, so they released him.  He’s aboard the ship with us on Formosa, in the hold, with a direct hit.  There’s four hundred people in there. Eighty walk out alive, and he’s one of the eighty.  Go figure—tried to kill himself three different times, and a perfect opportunity to end it, and he walks out.

T: Snuff, you worked in a coal mine.  How difficult was that work?

H: After I became well enough, yes, I worked down there. From April until  August [1945]. Short time only, though.  It was hard. Shoveling.  And I was supposed to be on light duty.  We were just shoveling, and I worked straight days.  We would work ten days in a row and then double up and probably even put twenty-four hours in to go to another shift.  They had shifts from six in the morning to six at night, and one from twelve noon to twelve midnight and another one from six at night to six in the morning.  There was somebody down in that mine all the time.

T: Was this brown coal?

H: Soft coal, yes.

T: How did you begin to get the inkling that the war was perhaps winding down for Japan?

H: We really didn’t. Not even after they pulled us out of the mine, after that bomb was dropped, the atomic bomb.  They pulled us out after that [was dropped in August 1945].  We couldn’t figure out.  They told us that they were going to work us only five days  a week and only eight hours a day and (***).  It’s not over yet, you know. They were just changing our schedule, we didn’t think of it as being over.  Then they disappeared.. One day they told us the war was over, and then the guards disappeared.

T: Is that what happened? The announcement was made?

H: Yes. That the Japanese had surrendered .

 

T: And then the guards all disappeared.

H: They disappeared.  I know a guy named R. D. Russell. Do you remember Chill Wills?

T: No.

H: The mule, Francis the mule.  Remember the voice?  His voice was just like someone from Arkansas. He came into camp with his hand, I didn’t know if it was broken, but it was pretty bad looking.  He said, “Well, we got the SOB.” He, an American and an Australian, they claimed that they got the captain, not the original captain, but the next one.  He was a miserable guy too. The first one was worse, they say. They got him.  The claimed they killed him.  They hung him to a tree and put a sign on him that said “Died of pneumonia.”  I couldn’t buy that, because he was from Arkansas and I didn’t think he could spell pneumonia.  We heard so many rumors that you didn’t know if you could believe them or not. 

T: Rumors, from your story, have been going from the time you hit Bataan to the time you got out.

H: We lived on rumors.  Some of it was stuff that talked about how the war was going.  Some of it was true.  We didn’t know that. 

T: Were there good relations between the different nationalities at the camp like at Camp 17?  You had Australians and Dutch, and maybe some others.

H: I wasn’t up there long enough to know how good the relations were, but I heard they got along good with the Australians.  I didn’t care for the Dutch that much.  Didn’t care for the English at all.  Overall. Some of them they liked. There was one guy, they claimed he came from the county which Charlie Chaplin came from, but I don’t know how true it was.  But I remember I was introduced by a guy named Reese, from Texas, he introduced me to this Englishman.  A little short chubby guy.  He said, “This guy is from Minnesota.” And he said, “Oh, your poor mother.” I said, “What do you mean, my poor mother?”  He said, “How could she stand a face like that?”  The first time I was introduced to him.  He was supposed to be off his rocker, too.  They had him washing gauze for the medics.  We reused gauze, washed and rewashed and rewashed  it. They had him doing that, and he was also working with the Japanese doing some of their kitchen work because he was off his rockers.  The half-way decent to people who were supposed to be… They were teaching him jujitsu. They say he broke a couple arms there. He got by with this.

T: That’s a very interesting observation about how the Japanese treated those guys differently.

H: Yes. That’s the way I understood.  Some guys didn’t remember that, but I said, “No, I noticed that.”  Even in Cabanatuan they treated this guy, he was stark naked and he was going to go through the fence, but nothing happened to him.  They thought he was off his rocker.  We had a Captain Katz in this ward.  One of these guys was sitting down next to Captain Katz, and the captain was reading. He was sitting next to him like this. The guy was off his rockers.  Katz says, “What are you doing?”  He says, “I’m brushing the grasshoppers off. I’m brushing them off.”  Katz says, “Don’t brush them off onto me.”  But there were no grasshoppers.

T: Let me pick up the story at Camp 17.  The Japanese guards disappear. 

H: We knew it was over then, because they made the announcement.  No more guards around there. 

T: What was your response? Did you want to go or wait or what?

H: We didn’t know what to do. Within days after that, maybe the next day, a war correspondent from Chicago, George Weller, came in.  He told us about MacArthur sending word up that we should not leave the camp until rescue teams get in there.  Get the data.  Let our families back home know.

T: Did rescue teams come pretty quickly?

H: Yes, they came in there. There were some guys that did take off, they just left.  In fact, one [American B-29 bomber] came over and a packet came out.  The guys scrambled to get that package.  Some of our guys took off and said “See you at home!” 

T: How long were you actually there before you were removed from Camp 17? Or moved out of there?

H: Within a week, I think, or two weeks.  It wasn’t very long. They took us by train. I was riding backward in this train, and I spotted all this bombing that had gone on. Terrific, pinpoint.  There’d be a factory right there—they knocked it right out.  The homes on either side were intact.  Beautiful bombing.   And then we saw buildings all over and trees uprooted and almost in unison the guys said, “The atom bomb.”  Then we got into Nagasaki and saw what that was like.  We took a destroyer out of Nagasaki.  The train took us right down to the dock.  We walked to the dock and got on the destroyer, and each one of the crew latched onto a person, almost adopted you and took you on. 

T: You had pretty good treatment there?

H: Yes.  It was great. 

T: I know from your story that you went to Okinawa and then to the Philippines and finally back to San Francisco, back to the States.  What was it like to finally be back in the States?

H: That was freedom.  I didn’t feel really free until I got back here.

T: So all those other stops, Okinawa, Philippines, what about them?

H: Even the ship. What we went through on our ship and going on a ship all the way back, it wasn’t that great of a trip. 

T: What kind of ship took you back to Frisco?

H: I don’t know what it was.  I can’t remember.  I remember being an insult to us.  They fed us rice!  Two different times. It was like a slap in the face really.  Even though we loved the rice, but it was a slap in the face.  No welcome any place.  They couldn’t let us off in Hawaii.  Wouldn’t let us off the ship.  We got to Frisco, there was no . . . In fact, they didn’t find the TB on me, and I didn’t complain about anything.  I wasn’t going to complain about anything until I got here [to the US].  I went from Frisco to Camp Carson, Colorado, and [that’s where] they spotted my problems.

T: They gave you a pretty good going over at Camp Carson?

H: Yes.  Little bit better there. 

T: Did you come right from there to St. Paul?

H: Yes. I went by train from Camp Carson to Denver. Train again, and I’m a hospital case.  Train from there to Des Moines, Iowa.  No seating arrangements.  The train was packed, so I stood for much of that time.  I  got so beat, I sat on a suitcase.  I sat on that thing and just squashed it.  It was the nurse’s.  The captain, or whatever she was, she chewed my ass out.  And I thought, “What can she do that the Japanese haven’t already done to me?”  She looked down and we had, I think, seven overseas stripes, almost more than anybody.  She spotted that  and stopped right there. She said, “Oh, I guess you’re pretty tired, aren’t you, soldier?”  I said, “I’m beat.” She let it go at that.

T: When she saw who you were, where you’d been anyway?

H: When she saw the overseas stripes.

T: You got back to St. Paul in late 1945?

H: Yes.  I think it was December.

T: It took you a number of months to make the way from Japan through these several stops.

H: I was at Camp Carson for a while.  Yes, it was in December.  I was AWOL for two weeks.  [The Army was] going to pick me up in the Minneapolis depot, and I jumped train in St. Paul. My girlfriend, later my wife, and her sister and brother-in-law picked me up.

T: You were in uniform now, were you?

H: Yes. I came back and stayed at the place I had boarded at before I went in [the Army in 1941].  I boarded with a family.  I went there and stayed there with them for two weeks, then I turned in.  I remember going to the registrar’s office  there.  Somebody mentioned my name, and she could hear it off in the distance.  Ruby, her name was Ruby.  I said, “My name is Harold Kurvers,” and she said, “Kurvers, where the hell were you? They sent a station wagon to the Minneapolis depot two or three days in a row.”

T: You weren’t on the train.

H: No. I wasn’t there.

T: How was it to see family and loved ones again?

H: It was great. Dorothy met me down there and gave me a big hug. But I had nobody else.

T: Your mom and dad had both passed away now?

H: My mother died in 1920. My dad died in 1943 [while I was a POW].

T: You had no siblings.

H: No.

T: You weren’t discharged until early 1946. What was the hardest thing for you readjusting to being back here?

H: I couldn’t really carry on too much of a conversation. I didn’t know that much.  Behind the walls you don’t learn much. 

T: The war had kind of happened without you, hadn’t it?

H: Yes.  Everything shrank.  I can tell you, I was working [at the Post Office]. It’s Christmas time ,and a few months before Christmas, they started working twelve hours a day. A push! So Mike, a guy named Michael Lamantia and I, we were washing up after twelve hours.  I was in the sink next to him. Mike, without looking up says, “What do you think of these damn hours?” I said “They’re okay.” He looked up and did a double take.  He said, “You! You don’t know what the hell civilization is!” 

T: You went to work for the Post Office. Pretty quickly?

H: I spent a year in the hospital.  I came out [of my POW experience] tubercular.  I had pleurisy real bad. They couldn’t even see my left lung. I got out of the hospital, it was close to a year.  I went to work in May of 1947.

T: We’re talking a couple of years after.

H: It was May of 1947.

T: You were already married by now, right?

H: Yes.  I got married in the hospital, at Glenlake Sanitorium.  I was married January 28, 1946.  Right away.  I used to tell her ,from the frying pan right into the fire.  That didn’t go over too big.

T: But you had known Dorothy before you went to the service.

H: Yes. We had been going together about eight months. Six, eight months, something like that. 

T: So she’d come visit in the sanitorium.

H: She was visiting there all the time.  She stayed with my aunt in Hopkins [Minnesota].  She was over there every day. Really concerned.

T: So it wasn’t until May of 1947 that you were released from there and could actually go to work.

H: After I got out they told me not to go to work for a while.   It was Christmas of 1946 that I got out of the hospital, and five, six months later, I went to the Post Office.

T: You retired from there after thirty-six years.  Indeed, that’s the only job you had.  Did you find that memories from your days as a POW were with you, or were something you could  more easily put on a shelf?

H: It’s with you. (pauses three seconds) Always.

T: How is it with you?

H: Something every day triggers it back to that. Something will remind me of it.

T: For example? 

H: Walking on Randolph [Avenue here in St Paul] one day. Kind of sticks in my mind.  At [the intersection of] Randolph and Snelling, I was coming up and there was a car going by, whipping his golf club outside the car. I’ve golfed.  I’ve seen a thousand golf clubs.  Never thought of it back there.  I saw that thing swinging outside the car, and I went right back to Bataan, to the time soldiers were swinging at us on the march.

T: With golf clubs.

H: Golf clubs. Right now. Harold VanAlstine, the guy that took the pictures, he broke his glasses right before the war broke out.  Didn’t have any glasses.  Our prison camp, our doctors, they had some kind of things where he was looking through little holes like cardboard.  I don’t know if you’ve ever done this.  If you need glasses, but you take your hands off and form a small opening, you can read through that. He had those all the time.  When I see somebody with a patch over his eye, I think of him.  I think of prison camp.

T: It’s something that strikes without warning.

H: Yes. Boom, it’s just there.

T: Have those decreased over time? How often it happens?

H: No.  I have another one.  Every time I go to mass, when they raise the chalice, I go back there, because there was a priest who was there.  We go to conventions.  During that week sometime, he would say, while he was cleaning the chalice, wiping it out, he’ll hold it up and say, “This came through three and a half years with me.”  That’s a wonderment right there.  How did that happen?  Why didn’t the Japanese take that away?  So mass brings a lot back. 
   
         We had a Father Talbot from Boston, who was saying masses on the side. He just said them for a select few, and I was one of them.  And he’d tell them, “If we don’t have hosts and the wine by Saturday, that’s it, no more.” It was always there.  He never divulged his source, but it was there.  It could have been a Japanese person bringing it to him.  We don’t know.  But he didn’t want to say, because he didn’t want to louse up anything he had going for him. And then we were allowed the first mass at Christmas, and the stuff came out—there were candles and a makeshift altar.  And they had some candles on it.  I can’t remember if it was two or three on either side.  It was midnight.  “Fitzpatrick,” I said to the guy next to me, “Nobody’s going to believe us.” Fitz says, “Tell them to call me.  I’ll attest to it.”  We had a blue moon come up while the mass was on. Kind of a breeze came up.  You’d think it would blow those candle out. They were flickering back and forth, but never went out. That sends a chill right up your spine.

T: That sticks with you, too, I imagine.

H: Oh, man.  I wonder, is that the reason I’m here?  To tell stories how God works, or what?

T: It can really make you wonder, can’t it?

H: Yes.

T: Snuff, this experience was more that fifty years ago.  How do you reflect on that now?

H: It’s a waste.  I think war’s a waste.  But how else are you going to get out of any situation?  Like these people now, saying what’s wrong here.  How else you going treat those terrorists?  The only way I can think of is if everybody said a prayer, everybody, maybe God would listen. Just like any other father—you got six kids and they’re all clamoring about something, you’re going to give in to them.

T: How do you think, in the long run, your war experience changed your life?

H: I don’t know.  That’s one of the things I wonder about.  What would I have been like if I had not had that experience?  Somebody just asked me last night.  This is strange.  I got to Mancini’s [restaurant in St Paul] with a bunch of guys, a handful of guys who go down.  Now there’s only three, four of us last night.  But this one guy asked me, and he is really a history buff, really into it.  He said, "I want to ask you something.  When you get to heaven…” I said, “Are you sure I’m  going?” He said, “Oh, yeah, you’re going.” He said, “When you get to heaven, God asks you.  You have one question, what would it be? Have you ever thought about it?” I said, “Never.”  But the question I would ask is, “Why was I spared?”  Not, Why did it happen to me?, but, Why was I spared?

T: Is that one of those things that you ask over and over again throughout your life?

H: Yes. The guilt’s with a lot of us—why? [My wife] Dorothy was the only one I had.  I didn’t know it at the time, but there were so many people that had families. They had children.  Wives, children.   They didn’t make it.
   
A young girl asked me that in a session out at Holy Spirit [Catholic School], a young girl, an eighth grader.  I thought it was a pretty good question.  She said, “Did you ever blame God for what you were going through?”  I said, “Not once. Never. We get ourselves into situations.  He gets us out of them. He isn’t putting us into them.” I don’t know whether that’s schmaltzy or what, but that’s my feeling.

Biographical information and all interview content © Thomas Saylor, 2001-02

Submitted to the site by permission of Harold G. Kurvers 2002

 

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