Oral Interview With Former POW John Perkowski
Major John (NMN) Perkowski, AUS, Retired
Will Perkowski (WP):
May I please ask your name?
WP: What branch did you join?
JP: I enlisted for the 59th Coast Artillery in the Philippines.
WP: What was your rank?
JP: Well, I enlisted as a recruit. I enlisted at Vancouver Barracks, Washington. I was taken by train to Fort McDowell, California, which was the overseas replacement depot, then I went on the United States Army Transport Republic from San Francisco to Manila. It took us 21 days to get there. We stopped in Hawaii on the way, of course, we couldn’t get off the boat in Hawaii, anyway, got to Manila and in Manila they put us on the ferry and they took us to Corregidor and I did recruit training on the tail end of Corregidor.
WP: Were you drafted or did you enlist?
JP: I enlisted. The draft was already in existence but I enlisted.
WP: Where were you living at the time?
JP: I was moving around the West Coast at the time. I was in Portland, Oregon and the recruiting sergeant stopped me on the street and said “Hey, why don’t you join the Army?” They sent me over to Vancouver Barracks which is right across the river from Portland and that’s where I was sworn in.
WP: Why did you join?
JP: Oh, lot of reasons. Some of my friends had joined, and some had been drafted, and it was a combination of things.
WP: Why did you pick the branch of service you joined?
JP: Because that’s what the recruiting sergeant had open. They were recruiting for that particular unit.
WP: Do you recall your first days in service?
JP: Pretty much. I stayed in Vancouver for a week and we didn’t do very much. Then they put us on a train and they took us down to Fort McDowell, which is on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. We stayed there from February to the 1st of April. On the first of April I got on the Republic.
WP: What did it feel like? Your first days of Service?
JP: Oh, there were quite a few of us, and we were just enjoying ourselves.
WP: Could you tell me about your boot camp training experiences?
JP: At that time they didn’t call it boot training, and they didn’t call it Basic Training. They called it recruit training. The recruit training was on Corregidor Island, on the tail of it, we lived in tents. We learned small arms, and how to march. We spent a lot of time marching on the tarmac down there. There was an old seaplane base there, this big tarmac, and we just marched, and marched, and marched. It was very hot down there. We learned all the other things people learned in what was later called Basic Training, but at that time was called recruit training. We were recruits.
WP: Do you remember your instructors?
JP: Not too many of them.
WP: How did you get through it?
JP: It was real easy. You just did your job. It was very hot, so in marching across tarmac a lot of guys passed out from the heat, because the temperature was over 100 degrees, and we were having to march around there. But for me, it wasn’t any problem.
WP: Were there any humorous events during your service?
JP: Oh, yeah, before
the war, Willie, I had had one three day pass to Manila, and it was
absolutely wonderful. In
October, 1941, I was given my second three day pass into Manila, and I was
in the dayroom shooting pool waiting to catch a little electric train than
ran on Corregidor from Topside down to the dock on Bottomside. I was waiting for the One o’clock or the One-thirty train and the
First Sergeant came in and said “Perkowski!
Am I glad to see you. General
MacArthur is on the island, and he wants to see Colonel Bunker’s command
post.” (This was the
Seacoast Command Post). So he
gave me the keys and said “Go on down there and open it up and clean it
up, and when the General gets there report that it’s open and ready for
WP: Which wars did you serve in?
JP: I was in World War II. During the Korean War, I was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and then Germany. I did not go to Korea.
WP: During World War II, where exactly did you go?
JP: The day the war started, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, I was on duty in the Seacoast Defense Command Post on Corregidor. The message came in from Harbor Defense Headquarters “Japanese aircraft have attacked Pearl Harbor. Take all active and passive defense measures.” So we took that message and we passed it on down. That happened in the early morning hours of December 8, 1941, because we were on the other side of the International Date Line.
WP: Do you remember arriving and what it was like?
JP: I was already
there when the war started, so the war came to me. The harbor defenses of Manila Bay consisted of four forts: The biggest one is
Corregidor, or Fort Mills. It’s shaped like a tadpole.
It’s about a mile across at the broad point, and three miles long
head to tail. In addition to
that, at the end of the tail there was another small island, Caballo
Island. Caballo in Spanish means Horse. That was Fort Hughes. Fort
Hughes was heavily fortified too. Halfway
across the South Channel towards the Cavite - Batangas coast was Fort Drum
on El Fraile Island, which had been made into a “concrete battleship.” It had two fourteen inch gun turrets on the top.
Each of those turrets had two guns. It also had two six-inch gun casemates on the side.
When the war started it had a great big tower with a searchlight on
top. It also had a barracks
and a great big redwood water tank on top. As the war went on, all those things disappeared. Over against the Cavite - Batangas coast was Fort Frank on Carabao
Island. It was about five
hundred yards offshore. It
was pretty close to where the Japs were.
WP: What was your job or assignment?
JP: I was a seacoast defense observation station operator. That means I worked in the command post and I could operate an azimuth instrument, a depression position finder (called DPF for short). It took an azimuth and a range to a target. The DPF had a 25 power or a 30 power eyepiece on it. Usually we just used the 30 power eyepiece. There were plotting tables and telephones from higher headquarters to us and from us to subordinate headquarters. In addition to that, over on Fort Frank, there was a battery command post just below us, and we were connected by speaking tubes on the old ships. You would speak into the tube, and you could communicate that way.
WP: Did you see combat?
WP: Did anyone pull rank?
JP: On Fort Frank, there was a Sergeant that had a separate detail. By then I was a Corporal, and I had a three man detail that worked in the Group Two command post. The Sergeant was in charge of a “Base End” station crew. One time, the Sergeant tried to pull rank on me. I told Colonel Stinnis about it, and Colonel Stinnis said “I’ll just have a word with that young man.” The guy never came back around.
WP: What did you think of your officers and fellow soldiers?
JP: I thought they were all great. Most of them were great people.
WP: Did you keep a personal diary?
JP: No. We were ordered not to keep diaries. Even so, a lot of officers kept diaries. The reason was the Japanese on Bataan kept diaries, and when we killed or captured them, our Intelligence officers got good information.
WP: Were there many casualties in your unit?
JP: On Fort Frank, we had a number of casualties. We had one 155mm gun battery that had Panama mounts. That meant they weren’t in enclosures. There was a railroad track that ran a full circle around each gun, and the trails of the gun rode that track. That battery was exposed, early on, they had about seven men killed and a bunch wounded there. Later on, most of our living quarters were underground in concrete tunnels. One day, a Japanese 240mm exploded in one of these big living areas. We had just received one hundred Philippine Army (not Philippine Scout) replacements. They were at the dispensary having their shots brought up to date. The 240mm shell came through the concrete ceiling and exploded in the room. Afterward, if you looked up, you could see a neat hole where the shell broke through, and pitting on the floor from the fragments of the shell. The explosion swept through the living area and killed about thirty Philippine Army soldiers and wounded forty to fifty more of them.
One day, I was up in the observation station and we were being shelled.
I was on duty with Lt. Colonel Stinnis, the executive officer.
He told me to go downstairs and I said “Aw, Colonel, I’d rather
be up here than downstairs. If one of those shells comes alongside. If one of those shells comes alongside I can be buried down
there.” So I stayed up
there with him. A little
later, a banana shaped piece of a 240mm shell, jagged on the inside,
bounced off the wall and hit Colonel Stinnis on the arm.
He received a four inch wound, half an inch deep, on his forearm. So I put my field bandage from my first aid packet on him,
then I told him “Colonel, when it slows down, you ought to have that
taken care of by the medic.”
He replied “Oh, no, no, no.” About an hour later, when the shelling
did slow down, he said “Boy, this is beginning to hurt.”
He called for relief, another officer came up there, and he went to
the medics. The next time I
saw him, he said “You were right. They
put about six or eight stitches into that thing and put some sulfa on it
so it wouldn’t get infected.”
SERVICE AS PRISONER OF WAR:
WP: Were you a prisoner of war?
JP: Yes, from May 1942 until the surrender of Japan. That was forty months long.
WP: Tell me about your experiences in captivity and when freed.
JP: On May 6, 1942 we
were told that Corregidor and all the Philippine forces would be
surrendered, including us. The
Japanese had landed on Corregidor and were in a position to threaten the
hospital tunnel and a lot of wounded people.
Things looked hopeless, and General Wainwright decided to
surrender. On May 6 we hauled
down the American flag and hoisted a white flag of surrender.
The only water we had while filling the holes was from a farm tank well with a windlass on it. You dropped a bucket down into the well, hoist it with a windlass, pour the bucket out, and do it again. There we were, maybe two hundred of us in this warehouse, and they would only let us get water for an hour a day. Really, we almost never had enough water. A friend of mine, Quentin Cooper, was in charge of the height finder, searchlight, and sound ranging detail from A Battery, 60th Coast Artillery. He said, “The Hell with this, I’m going to go over there and get some water.” So he gathered all of his canteens from his men, and went over there, and there was a Jap guard on the well, and the next thing you know, they were arguing, and then the Jap was hitting him with his rifle butt. Then more Japs came and they beat him and they hauled him away. The next morning, what we saw of Quentin Cooper was his head, chopped off, hanging from a signpost at the intersection of two dirt roads nearby.
That’s just an illustration of some of the treatment. The treatment was not good. We stayed there for another week or so in that barracks, with very little water and very little food.
They put on a little ship and took us into Manila Bay. They dropped us from the ship onto landing barges, which took us to Cavite. There they dropped us off in neck deep water, and we swam and waded ashore. There the Japanese formed us into a triumphal parade into Manila with the troops from Corregidor. They took us into Bilibid Prison and packed us into World War I “40 & 8” (40 men or 8 horses) little boxcars, about one hundred men to a boxcar. We had to stand up, we couldn’t sit down, and they moved us by train from Manila to Cabanatuan. Guys were literally dying in those boxcars.
When we got to Cabanatuan, they kept us overnight in a schoolhouse yard that they’d made into a holding pen. The next day they marched us out to Cabanatuan.
While we were in Cabanatuan, I ran into a kid who was in my battery. He had been to Cooks and Bakers School in Manila, but had washed out of that. Anyway, during the fighting stage on Corregidor, when Corregidor was really getting shelled and bombed, the underground cables were getting cut. So, they made him a wireman, and he laid field wire between batteries and command posts and things like that. He was a very, very brave individual and he was wounded while he was doing that. He told me that he had seen enough of the Filipino people that he thought they would look after him, and he was going out under the fence that night. I went to sleep and in the morning he was gone. I didn’t see him again.
They marched us from Cabanatuan to a camp six miles away. It was a Philippine Army training camp, with bamboo barracks. Again, there was very little food and very little water. I had dengue fever. During one formation, everything went black. I couldn’t see anything. I said “Boy, I’m blind, I can’t see anything.” There was a medic around, who had a couple of aspirin, and he gave me a couple and told me to go to sleep after the formation. The next morning, I came to, and had my sight back, but I still had the high fever.
On that trip from the schoolhouse to the camp, there were four troops that decided to take off and escape. The Japs caught them, and brought them into camp. There was a ravine between two parts of the camp. The guards made them dig graves for themselves, then they beat them, and then firing squad shot them. The troops fell into their graves. Then a Jap officer came along and administered the “coup de grace” to each of them.
WP: Coup de WHAT?
JP: Coup de grace. He shot them. He made sure they were dead. Then they organized us into groups of ten. If one guy escaped, they would kill the other nine guys. That was their method to keep us from trying to escape. The treatment was terrible, people had dengue fever, malaria, beri-beri. There was very little food.
We stayed there for about a month, then they moved us down to a camp called Cabanatuan Number Three. At the same time, they were moving prisoners who were caught when Bataan surrendered into Cabanatuan Number Three too. The conditions were horrible. Forty or fifty guys died every day from disease, malnutrition, and what have you. We would dig these long graves. We could only dig them about three feet deep, because it was the rainy season and the water table was very high. We’d put the bodies in the graves and then cover them up. Sometimes the graves were not deep enough. The Filipinos had a bunch of wild dogs running around there. The dogs would dig up and pull off body parts. The smell of that rotting flesh from that graveyard, when the wind was in the right direction, was absolutely horrible. Sickening. The most horrible smell you ever smelled in your life.
The Americans finally got organized. Our guys convinced the Japs that they needed better drainage, so they got people to work to dig drainage so the rainwater would drain off and there wouldn’t be so many mosquitoes.
Eventually some Red Cross Parcels arrived. Things were a little bit better after that.
A few months later I went down on a work detail. They put us on trucks and took us to Nichols Field. Nichols Field is in Pasay (John's Photo link), just south of Manila. There the Japanese were building a third runway. The Americans had built the runways in an L shape. The Japs decided to have a diagonal runway too. They brought in some miniature railroad construction trains. We would move earth from a high point to a low point. Slave labor. One guy had problems there. The Japs took him out and chopped his head off.
Then I went back to Cabanatuan. There was an Air Corps lieutenant named Jones, they called him Farmer Jones. He convinced the higher-ups they should go to the Japs and get some seed. There was all this land out there, and we should try to grow some of our own food. So, the Japs did come in with hoes and shovels and things like that, and so we had a farm there. A lot of guys didn’t like that farm, but it actually did a lot of good, because the Japs took a lot of the better vegetables that we raised out there and sold it off on the Philippine market, but we did get quite a bit of it into camp. So in addition to getting some exercise, we also got some needed nourishment.
WP: Did you get that food openly back into camp, or did you spirit it back into camp?
JP: It was both, and if you got caught spiriting food back into camp, you got a really bad whipping. Most of it was brought back in and spread out amongst the various field kitchens.
WP: What was your weight when you took your first Army physical?
JP: I was probably one hundred fifty-five pounds. I had a friend of mine tell me “John, you ought to weigh 175 pounds with that big frame of yours.” TRANSCRIBER NOTE: MAJ Perkowski’s wartime low weight was 90 pounds, either at the Cabanatuan camp or Pasay School. At liberation MAJ Perkowski was 110 lbs.
WP: What was the food like?
JP: When they first started giving us rice, the rice they gave us was wormy. We didn’t eat the first meal. On the next meal, we picked the worms out and ate the rice. Shortly after that, when we saw a worm, we said “Well, here’s my protein ration,” and ate everything. Our food was mostly rice. When we got to Japan, our rice was mixed with millet. It’s a grain, kind of like a barley, except it’s red colored. We also got a very thin soup. We got very little meat, and when we did, our cooks cooked it into soup. You got a measure full of rice, the servers had bamboo cups so everyone got the same amount. In addition to that, there was a ladle full of this very thin soup, with a few vegetables in it, and that was what the food was.
WP: Did you have plenty of supplies?
JP: No supplies, no supplies. I have some pictures, I’ll send you a picture of a group they took when they were at Nichols Field. Maybe you can recognize me without me telling you. I’ll send you a copy, you will see what kind of supplies we had. What we did was we took boards and made clogs out of them. When we got to Japan, they gave us little black sneakers, they were real funny because the big toe was separated from the rest of the toes. Usually, those sneakers were pretty worn down most of the time.
WP: Why did the Japanese treat their prisoners so badly?
JP: That generation of Japanese were just bad people, Willie. They not only treated the Americans and the Filipinos badly, they also had invaded and taken over quite a bit of China, and they treated the Chinese very harshly. There are some books out. One is called The Rape of Nanking. The Japanese literally massacred the people and raped the women. They had done the same thing in Korea. They did the same thing down in Singapore, and Malaya, and Indonesia, then called the Dutch East Indies. They did the same thing down there. They had captured all these places. I don’t know if you ever saw the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.
JP: If you ever get a chance to see it, at least part of it is true: The part before they decided to cooperate with the Japanese on building that bridge. They took a lot of the Dutch living in the Dutch East Indies and the English and Australians they captured in Singapore, Malaya, and Burma. They put them on building a railroad through Burma, and many, many, many of those people died. They died from disease, starvation, and overwork. They were just mean people. It was the mental set of that particular generation of Japanese. I’m sure Japanese today aren’t like that. The Japanese of the 1930s and 1940s were raised to answer to the Shogun. He was the chief military leader to the Emperor of Japan. The Emperor was considered a God. The word from up above was to demean their captives.
The Japanese were mean to each other, too. The Lieutenant would slap a Sergeant, and the Sergeant would slap a Corporal, and the Corporal would hit a Private. That was the usual thing. They weren’t just mean to everyone else, they were meant to themselves, too. They were mean people.
WP: Would you share some more war stories?
JP: Sure. We were back at Cabanatuan. There was a Swedish ship by the name of Gripsholm that was used to exchange diplomatic personnel between Japan and the Allied countries. The Gripsholm came in, and she was loaded with Red Cross supplies, both from Europe and the United States. Some of those Red Cross supplies were specifically packaged for the prisoners of war, and some of them actually made their way into the prison camps. They were heavily laden with protein like milk powder and Spam and corned beef and things like that. Once we got those packages, things eased up, we were terrifically short on protein. At one point in my captivity, I weighed ninety pounds. I was in good shape compared to others, who were worse off than I was, but I was literally a walking skeleton. Things got a little bit better for that.
WP: How did you stay in touch with your family, if you did?
JP: I had one postcard. The Japs gave us postcards to write to our families. I had one postcard that got through. I got nothing from my family.
WP: Did you feel pressure or stress?
JP: I would call it stress. I would call it pressure. Absolutely. Big pressure, big stress.
WP: Was there anything special you did for good luck?
JP: I didn’t, but I
know a lot of other people that did. Some people managed to have little pocket Bibles that they carried
with them, and some people had a Crucifix or something like that.
WP: Be alive in Forty-Five?
JP: YEAH! “Still alive in Forty-Five.” That’s it.
WP: How did people entertain themselves?
JP: In the big camp, at Cabanatuan, that’s the only one that had any entertainment. The Japs finally got together some instruments that were taken from when the American bands and band members were captured, and they brought some instruments into camp. So, they formed a band with people that could play. They put on shows, actually. The Japanese would come and watch these shows that these guys put on. Cabanatuan was the only place where there was any entertainment. There wasn’t entertainment in any of the work camps, there was no entertainment in Japan at Camp 17, there was absolutely no entertainment on that Hell Ship. There just wasn’t any.
WP: Were there any entertainers?
JP: Well, just the G.I.’s themselves. There were a lot of people who were talented. Some of them were musicians, and some of them were comics, things like that.
WP: Did you have leave?
JP: No leaves.
In 1944, as the American offensives were
getting closer and closer to the Philippines, the Japanese decided to
evacuate the American prisoners of war to Japan. On July 1, 1944, I was put on an old Japanese freighter along with 1,500
other prisoners of war. We
were placed in the two forward holds the freighter. We were literally packed in there like sardines. We had very little water. We
had a couple of five gallon gasoline cans with the ends cut out of them to
use as our toilets. The guys
had dysentery and diarrhea and it was just a horrible situation. We
started out of Manila Bay about three or four times, and each time we
returned to the Bay. Finally,
we were able to get out of the bay and join a convoy on its way to
The Americans and the Aussies worked the
coal mine, while the Dutch worked the zinc mill and the docks.
The Air Corps came in and bombed the zinc mill, those guys didn’t
have to work, and the Navy came in and bombed the docks so those guys
didn’t have to work, but the coal mine:
Everybody bombed the coal mine.
The Air Corps bombed the tipple mills, and they dropped napalm on
the coal plows, and they couldn’t put it out of action.
When they dropped napalm, we didn’t know what is was, so we
called it jell-gas. As we
went from the camp to the mine, we could see these open canisters along
the road. The stuff in them
looked like jelly, but the air smelled like gasoline, so we called it
WP: Do you recall your Liberation?
JP: I was a Japanese prisoner of war in Japan, and I was told of my
by a newspaperman from one of the Chicago newspapers, one of the first
Americans we saw come in to camp. (George
Weller) On August 15, 1945, all of our guards disappeared. We tore down the fences and wandered around the town of Omuta,
where our camp was locate. On about the last day of August 1945 a
newspaperman from one of the Chicago newspapers came into our camp. He told us the only place on Kyushu (the southernmost of the
Japanese Home Islands) where the Americans had occupied was at Kanoya
Airfield, near the town of Kagoshima.
WP: What did you go on to do as a career after the war?
JP: I stayed in the
Army. I retired from the Army
in May of 1961 after twenty years. I
went from recruit to Private to PFC to Corporal to Sergeant to Staff
Sergeant, then an OCS Candidate, then a Second Lieutenant, then a First
Lieutenant and Captain and I retired as a Major.
I took a couple of weeks off, re-enlisted, and went to the Submarine Mine Operations Course at the Coast Artillery School, Fort Winfield Scott, on the north shore of San Francisco Bay, California. Then I decided to go to Officer Candidate School. I went to OCS at Fort Riley, Kansas, where I met your grandmother. We were married the day after I was commissioned.
As an Army officer, I first went to Fort Bliss, Texas, where I rejoined my wartime regiment, the 59th. It was now the Anti-aircraft Artillery School Regiment. From Fort Bliss I was sent to Fort Hood, Texas, with the 1st Armored Division and its Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion. I was not sent to the Korean War, but went instead to Germany, to an armored field artillery battalion, from 1952 to 1955. When your grandmother and I came home, we went to Los Angeles, back to Fort MacArthur, where I spent five years at a Nike surface to air missile site. My next to last assignment was to the Taiwan Republic of China, on Formosa in the Western Pacific, in 1959 and 1960. Then I returned to Fort MacArthur until my retirement in 1961.
WP: Were you awarded any medals or citations?
JP: Almost all
American troops captured by the Japanese had the Bronze Star Medal awarded
to them. I have the Purple
Heart, and lots of Service Medals.
TRANSCRIBER NOTE: Post-retirement, MAJ Perkowski graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles a Bachelor of Science in Accounting in 1964. He worked for the Internal Revenue Service and the United States Board of Renegotiation from 1965 to 1979. MAJ Perkowski left the civil service in 1979, relocating to Nevada and opening his own private CPA practice. MAJ Perkowski sold his practice about 1994. He is currently a commercial property developer in Garndnerville, NV.